26 April 2009

rock the oat

There is something almost blissful about a Sunday where it's raining softly and you have no pressing tasks ahead of you. I'm the first to acknowledge that there's nowt more depressing than a quickly diminishing Sunday afternoon, but a gentle rain and a little slothfulness can counteract that swiftly. Right now I'm casually blogging and shmoozing the internet. Later on I'm going to make some bread rolls - in itself something best done when you have time to knead the dough and let it rise - and shape meatballs which will be simmered in rich tomato sauce. On a Saturday this might be a bit too slow-paced, not exciting enough. But on a rainy Sunday - perfect.

Before I get too nauseatingly earnest...I spent yesterday perambulating between the kitchen and my computer with equal laziness. Not that it was a day wasted - Tim and I were up at 4.50am to get to the dawn service. For those of you who don't have a working knowledge of New Zealand, 25th of April is ANZAC day, a time of remembrance and acknowledgement for those who have participated and lost their lives in war. (The acronym stands for Australia and New Zealand Army Corps.) Although largely associated with WWI, it encompasses all those who have served. I won't go too far into it because you'll be able to tell that I've just reworded stuff from Wikipedia. I got home from the dawn service at about 7am (I had to walk up the hideous hill as the cable car wasn't open) and excitedly anticipated having the whole day ahead of me to do necessary, productive things. Then I fell asleep for three hours.

World War I is of particular interest to me, probably influenced by my mother's own enthusiastic study of this time. I'm not pro-war in the slightest, but the horrors of these times shaped New Zealand irrevocably and I am lucky enough to have visited several areas of Belgium and Northern France where young Kiwi men - some pathetically young - lie buried in graves that bear row upon unfathomable row of white crosses.
Anzac biscuits are part of New Zealand baking tradition, not exclusive to any particular day, but what with the power of suggestion and all I decided yesterday, once I'd come to from my nap, would be as good a day to make some as any. The accepted story behind these biscuits is that Kiwi women sent them over to the troops in WWI because they were economic to make and kept well - but I don't know for sure and again, one doesn't want to appear to have plundered Wikipedia for information. Frankly, most of the ones you can buy in shops are really not that nice - all hard and mealy and undelicious. Much better made at home, and a gratifyingly buttery way to feel a connection with my country.

ANZAC Bicuits (never, ever 'cookies'.)
As every recipe you will ever find is basically the same, I don't feel the need to attribute this to anyone. I did, however, replace the normal white sugar with brown and up the butter slightly. And it produced a superior biscuit.
150g butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon golden syrup
1 cup plain flour
2 cups rolled oats
1 cup dessicated coconut
1 teaspoon baking soda

Set the oven to 180 C/350F. Melt the butter, sugar, and golden syrup together gently in a pan over a low heat. Once it has formed a delicious caramelly puddle, stir in the dry ingredients. Dissolve the baking soda in a little hot water and mix it in quicky and thoroughly. Form mixture into small balls on a baking tray and carefully flatten with a fork (you may need to squish them together if the balls fall apart). Bake for 12 minutes, remove from the oven and allow to cool.

Above: Uncooked Anzac biscuits, ready for the oven. This recipe should make about 30. Having said that I ate a lot of mixture. Maybe it makes more than 30. You'd think I'd learn.

Once baked, they are far superior to anything you'll buy from a shop. Buttery, oaty, a little crisp and - as I said last Anzac day - "chewy with tradition", they are like apple crumble topping in cookie form. A seductive concept, yes? There's little fancy or fussy about these biscuits but they're child's play to make and considerably economical as far as baking goes.

Earlier this week Tim and I were fortunate enough to see Sylvie Guillem and Russell Maliphant in Push, a show that has been touring worldwide and made its way to Wellington. Once again, if you want to know the history of Sylvie Guillem's life, Wikipedia will do a better job that I can (I don't mean to sound all caustic, it just puts me off when blatant chunks of information that came from some site or other on peoples' blogs appear sandwiched between the normal writing.) What you do need to know is that she is a legend in her field - dance - and widely considered one of the most brilliant dancers of modern times. She's not young - for a dancer that is - and being as New Zealand is by and large geographically estranged from where anything exciting happens, it was an utter privelege to have the opportunity to see her.
Guillem was so...limber. Like a flame, flickering across the stage. It was wonderful to watch someone utterly in control of their body, dancing with grace and ease and power. Maliphant was something of a revelation as well - and the two of them together were just faint-makingly beautiful. In the final piece of the programme they danced together as though there was a magnet connecting their bodies - Guillem would fling herself fearlessly at Maliphant and somehow land on his shoulder with one leg in the air. Not a hint of exhalation or exhaustion from either of them. The whole thing was just...exquisite. Celebrity alert - we saw the gorgeous Loren Horsley, (from Eagle vs Shark with Jemaine Clement), and - somewhat unexpectedly - a man we were quite convinced was Danyon Loader, Olympic medal-winning swimmer. Also present were a lot of ballet-dancery type girls who reminded me that I will never be a ballerina. Nevertheless, I can still be someone who appreciates and loves dance, and someone who dances round the bedroom with my iPod on...someone who arabesques while drying and putting away dishes and who plies to pick up something off the floor...
Finally: I still haven't kicked this dirty cough that I have. It's croupy, and worse from 6pm onwards - I end up coughing nonstop at about 2am, and my poor tired brain can't keep up with it. Anyone have any ideas? I'd rather be a hippy and not get antibiotics if I can help it, and I know your grandmother had some kind of natural remedy you can share with me. For what it's worth, I've been drinking my body weight in fresh ginger and lemon tea and have eaten a lot of garlic...any ideas muchly appreciated!
Next time: I did some homemade beetroot ravioli last night, and will probably bake something frivolous between now and whenever I blog next. Can you believe April is nearly done? Coming up on the calendar- The Wellington Food Show, which I am ridiculously excited about and shall be blogging about with vigour. We've managed to secure tickets to see charming comedian Dylan Moran on the 11th and the band Okkervil River on the 15th, and then on the 19th it's our graduation. Busy times ahead...
New stuff! After every blog I'll list three songs that came on shuffle while writing this blog. Why? Mostly narcissism probably, but also because I love music with a dark passion and I like the idea of possibly broadening your horizons, providing a little insight into who I am, or at the very least getting The Final Countdown stuck in your head.
1: Let Me Drown - Brian D'Arcy James and Idina Menzel - The Wild Party Original Cast Recording
2: Mad Tom of Bedlam - Jolie Holland - Escondida
3: Farmer John - Neil Young - Weld

18 April 2009

house of the rising bun

While in my last post I extolled the joys of the five-day Easter weekend, I spent this whole week at work scrambling to get up to speed with everything. Hence, my lack of presence round here. The intention was definitely there, but the time didn’t materialise. Anyway the upshot of this is that if the food blogging world was a party, my hot cross buns would be Kate Moss, arriving scandalously late and with a fabulous rockstar on their arm, making everyone else wish they’d dared to be so louche and devil-may-care.

At least that’s what I tell myself.

As well as my seasonal buns, you can also look forward to a surprising amount of cafe reviews and a little shoutout to myself for being born upon a particular day (yesterday, if you're wondering).

To provide a bit of context, I made my initial batch of hot cross buns on Easter Sunday. I’d just flown back to Wellington from Auckland where I saw The Winter’s Tale. It was a spellbinding production, for a three hour play it flew by and stellar performances were delivered by all, despite the fact that the theatre was far from full (cough ‘economic climate’ cough). I’ll be frank, I wasn’t wildly taken with Ethan Hawke’s Hamlet (and much less taken with Julia Stiles’ Ophelia) but in The Winter’s Tale he was fabulous, playing his character like the lovechild of Bob Dylan and Captain Jack Sparrow. But Shakespearean.

Before I went up to Auckland I scoured through my Cuisine magazines and sussed out where some fun foodie shops were so I could hunt them down and possibly part company with a business card or two for my blog while spending time and money therein. The fates (and possibly stupidity) were against me as I just couldn’t find a bus to Mt Eden, where said shops were located. I can’t say it served to endear the city to me, however I did spend a happy hour or so at the art gallery taking in the delightful Yinka Shonibare exhibition.

I also met a friend at Alleluya Cafe in St Kevin's Arcade on Karangahape Road. Apparently it is the sort of place that attracts the sort of people that attracts the sort of words like "hipster" and "scene", but it wasn't intimidatingly so when I arrived on Saturday afternoon. My coffee, a long black, didn't arrive but the guy behind the counter looked so shocked - nay, crestfallen, when I told him I'd been waiting for a while that I didn't harbour any animosity, especially when it finally arrived with a complimentary biscotti and was the smoothest, mellowest black coffee I've had in forever. My friend and I shared a slice of lemon yoghurt cake, which was pleasant, and a piece of Jewish ginger cake, which was way good and still haunts my dreams a week later.

Alleluya Cafe
St Kevin's Arcade, K'Rd, Auckland CBD
09-377 8424
Verdict: Ignore the sneaking suspicion that you're not cool enough to be there because the coffee is gorgeous and it was worth the plane fare for that Jewish ginger cake alone.

Back in familiar Wellington and on a Shakespeare high, I got stuck into the joyful task of making hot cross buns following Nigella’s recipe from Feast. Everything was going well until the final hurdle. I burnt the sodding things. Considering they took the better part of the afternoon I was mightily unhappy, but I could only blame myself for letting them bake for too long.

Having said that it took only a bare amount of convincing to make another batch the next day. Upon closer inspection the burnt buns were still salvageable – I cut off and discarded all the severely blackened parts, bagged the lot up and put it in the freezer, where they will one day become the base of a warm, spicy bread and butter pudding. I can’t wait. For round two I tried an Alison Holst recipe, partly because I was intrigued by her method and partly because there’s something suspiciously trustworthy about her.

Hot Cross Buns

As I said, the method is a little unusual but don’t be scared – it’s seriously easy and the finished buns have a marvellous texture.

1 cup milk
½ cup hot water
2 T sugar
4 tsps/1 sachet active dried yeast
2 cups high grade strong bread flour
100g soft butter
½ cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon salt
1 T mixed spice
1 T cinnarmon
1 t ground cloves
1 cup currants/sultanas
2-3 cups high grade strong bread flour

Place the first four ingredients into a large bowl, making sure that the liquid is neither too warm nor too cold before you add the yeast. Stir in the first measure of flour, cover the bowl with plastic wrap, and leave in a warm place to rise. This won’t take a heck of a long time – maybe half an hour.

Meanwhile, cream the butter and sugar together, add the egg, salt, spices and dried fruit. Following a suggestion of Nigella’s I added some cardamom seeds here which worked beautifully. The spices get really diluted in the dough so don’t worry about the fact that the measurements look large. When the original mixture has doubled in size and is looking spongy, mix in the fruit mixture and the second measure of flour. Knead till it comes together in a springy ball, then form into 16-24 buns. Arrange on a paper-lined tray, cover with plastic wrap and leave to rise, which they should do significantly. Don’t leave them for too long – trust your eyes.
Alison recommends a mixture of flour, butter and water rolled into thin strips for the crosses but I found that they tended to fall off after baking. Anyway, brush the buns with milk and lay the crosses o’er them. Bake uncovered at 225 C for 10-12 minutes till browned lightly.

Well Alison, you win this time. These hot cross buns were immensely delicious, filling the kitchen, as with many kitchens across the world, with a warm, cinnamony scent, like a hug in perfume form. I flagrantly added a handful of chocolate chips to the dough and...I liked it. A lot.

Needless to say, they were at their best still warm from the oven and liberally buttered. I'm thinking this recipe is definitely a keeper and would like to make these buns in other forms - without the crosses - throughout the year, as the basic recipe is too good to keep confined to one day in April.

Speaking of one day in April, yesterday was my birthday and I gotta say, I didn’t have high expectations. I almost forgot that it was coming up – it felt as though it was a shadowy date in the vague distance as opposed to being on the immediate agenda – and I’ve had a hearty cough getting the better of me this week, not to mention the fact that I was working. Nevertheless it turned out to be one of the nicest self-anniversaries I’ve had in a long time. Everyone at work was lovely – there were balloons and flowers on my desk, a coffee appeared out of nowhere, I was taken out to lunch and a homemade banana cake replete with candles was produced at the beginning of a three hour meeting in the afternoon, all completely unexpectedly. Extended family members from home sent me a kitchen blowtorch, which I’m quite wild to use on a crème brulee pronto, I had cards sent from dad and my great-aunty, and there were text-messages a-plenty. Mum, who is in Argentina, put a video of her charming classroom singing Happy Birthday to me in Spanish and English. With all of that it’s amazing I wasn’t weeping sentimentally the whole day. In case you are wondering, I am now 23, which is hopefully still young enough to be 'interesting' as a food blogger.

After work Tim and I bought a bottle of cheap red and found this adorable middle Eastern BYO called Casablanca to quaff it in. The service was perfect, the food was cheap, plentiful and fast, and the atmosphere was delightful. It’s not very fancy, but it’s fun, and the food tastes comfortingly home-made as opposed to assembled. A small plate of complimentary bread and dips appeared after we sat down, and we were asked if we were ready for our mains to be made after we finished our starters, both nice little touches that made the dining experience that much better. I wish I’d had my camera to take a photo of my taboulleh which was particularly delicious – full of verdant, fresh parsely and juicy tomato.

18 Cambridge Tce (off Courtenay Place)
Wellington CBD
04-384 6968
Verdict: It's not the Logan Brown but it's probably more fun (unless some kind benefactor wants to shout me dinner there and refute this opinion). The menu could charitably be described as succinct, but what's there is nicely done. I can definitely see myself returning.

From there we spent a significant amount of time at one of my favourite haunts in town, a themed bar called Alice, tucked away down an unassuming side road off Tory Street. You tunnel through a quiet, curtained corridor and emerge into a softly-lit, split level room which seeks to recreate some kind of Alice in Wonderland experience. The drinks are expensive but classy and potent, and you can make them worth your while if you get one of the cocktails for two which comes in a teapot. The bar is much lower than the floor itself which adds to the surreal effect and there are framed illustrations from the novel and distorted mirrors everywhere. I’m not describing it very well but it’s a great place to sit for hours having cosy discussions about things that seem very important at the time, which is exactly what we did.

After concluding that the only way we’d get away with sitting there any longer would be to spend a small fortune on another cocktail, we decided to hightail it out of there for a fortifying coffee. I have to say, betraying my country village background maybe, that personally there is something hugely exciting about getting a coffee or a bite to eat late at night – it makes me feel deliciously sophisticated and worldly, and of course by being so excited about it instantly renders me distinctly un-sophisticated. But there you have it. We chose to patronise Deluxe, which is apparently something of a Wellington institution. It has so far always passed me by, because it’s only fairly recently that I’ve had more of an income to spend recklessly on coffee from funky cafes.

Deluxe is hugely popular in Wellington, even at 11.00pm we had to strain to find a table. I’ll be honest, our coffee wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but I suspect this was due to the fact that it was late at night and we’d had a couple of drinks and were therefore perhaps not a priority for quality control. Which is a shame, if this is true, but it’s better than the idea that their coffee is generally below average, yes? I’ve certainly had worse, and the delicious chocolate brownie that Tim and I shared raised our opinion of the place. We sat there for about half an hour, pretending to be hipsters as we drank our late night black coffee and chuckled over the pithy content in Vice magazine. I think I’ll definitely try Deluxe again, as 11.00pm on a Friday night is hardly condusive to a thorough, well thought critique of a café.

10 Kent Terrace (Next to the glorious Embassy Theatre)
04 801 5455
Verdict: This place probably is too cool for us, but that won't stop me returning to give it a proper scrutiny. As it is, my opinion doesn't matter since it is constantly packed with customers.

This morning Tim and I met with our friend Dr-to-be Scotty at Roxy Café. I hastily snapped some photos of what we ate, the images aren’t great but the food was. Special mention must be made about the hash browns, which were large, crunchy without and deliciously potato-ey within, and quite the nicest that I’ve had in a long time. Good friends and hash browns is a winning combination and we had a lovely morning talking smack with Scott.

Above: My French Toast with fresh fruit (and I ordered a hash brown on the side.) The toast itself was great, and generous at three pieces, although I felt that the chopped apple, pear and banana that made up the bulk of my "fresh fruit" was a little cheap, could they not have stretched to a stone fruit or something? The hash brown was fantastic.

Above: Tim and Scott ordered big breakfasts with extra hash browns. According to Tim his poached egg was perfect, and of course you already know about the hash browns at this place. Although I was comfortably full after my meal, I found myself looking wistfully at the small but intriguing lunch menu, which features some delicious sounding choices. The service was fine, I like that they brought out a carafe of water right away, and the cafe itself was a cool and airy respite from the heat of the outside world this morning.

Roxy Cafe
203-205 Cuba St
Wellington City
04-890 3939
Verdict: All I can think about right now is their hash browns. This place is very nice and I'd definitely like to try it out again, the pricing is pretty reasonable so this shouldn't be an issue. They get an extra star for serving butter on a little dish with the big breakfasts. This sort of behaviour is to be encouraged.
If you made it through all that then congratulations. And I mean really reading it, not just looking at the pictures. There's gold in them thar paragraphs.

Next time: While up in Auckland I bought a fabulous Italian cookbook which I've already delved into and of course you know how excited I am about my kitchen blowtorch. I forsee a creme brulee on the horizon...

10 April 2009

instant karma


What’s exciting about Easter when you’re a kid? The chocolate. When you work full time? The chocolate…and the five day weekend. Since I’ve finished uni the holidays have completely dried up so I’ve been anticipating this long weekend with glee for quite some time. Tomorrow I’m zooming up to Auckland to see the Bridge Project production of The Winter’s Tale (a play by this underground, cult author named Shakespeare) which has made its way round the world to New Zealand, leaving excellent reviews in its wake. Even at face value it’s interesting – the Oscar and Olivier award-winning Mr Kate Winslet, Sam Mendes is directing it and it features a jaw-dropping cast including Ethan Hawke, Rebecca Hall, and Sinead Cusack. For a Shakespeare nerd like me, it’s going to be one heck of an evening. Sunday morning I’ll be back in Wellington to make hot cross buns…and I’m almost as excited about that as I am about the play tomorrow.

For some reason, it has been forever since I've made couscous – the food so nice they named it twice. I can't think why, other than I've been distracted by brown rice for too long, because couscous is the perfect fast food, just add boiling water and you’re good to go. I can’t think of any other starch that’s so utterly instant. Even after having a glass or three of wine at a a colleague's farewell get-together on Wednesday, I was able to deal with it and make a perfectly acceptable dinner. If I’d had to make something that required more concentration, like a risotto, it’s quite feasible that I could have flagged the lot and headed out for fish and chips instead.

Just as easy as couscous is what I made to go with it – halved tomatoes, roughly chopped butternut squash, cauliflower florets and foil wrapped beetroot, bunged in the oven and roasted for an hour. Not fast, but also not requiring any great amount of thought or committment. When the veges were nearly ready, I heated cumin, coriander and fennel seeds with a dash of cinnamon and ginger in a dry pan, then added the couscous and mixed them altogether. At this stage they smelled heavenly – just the sort of spices you want to have on a chilly evening. Boiling water was poured over, I removed the pan from the heat and covered it with a plate. A bare minute or so later the granules of couscous were tender and swollen, and I forked through a little butter before dividing the lot between two plates. On top of this went the vegetables, a tumble of baby spinach leaves, and chopped capers and walnuts. For a dinner so simple, comprised of ingredients in such unadulterated form…it was delicious.

Today has been pleasantly blue-skied but you can tell it’s Autumn and not midsummer January – it’s chilly in the shade. Tim and I decided to capitalise on our time in the sun and set off towards the beautiful Botanical Gardens (or "the botans" as we call it), a mere ten minute walk from our flat to feed the ducks, a favourite activity of mine. Never mind that whenever we go we are the only twentysomethings amongst the toddlers and encouraging parents, it’s really fun. Tim and I got to the duckpond and noticed with trepidation that there were bits of bread floating untouched in the water. I tossed a morsel of bread hopefully towards the water where it landed with a splash, and was met with a look of disdain by one of the ducks. One of them – I swear – actually sighed. It slowly paddled towards the piece of bread and ate it dutifully before looking at me as if to say “Happy now? We’re full, give us some peace already!” I guess we weren't the only people who had decided to feed the ducks that day.

Dejected, we left the duck pond. Fate had other plans though, because as we headed up the road to our flat, we were lucky enough to see a tui – one of New Zealand’s native birds – barely a metre and a half away from us in a tree, singing his wee heart out. If the ducks had complied and done what they were supposed to, we would have missed the tui completely. Must have been meant to be.

(photo care of google images - I'm good, but not that good)

For some reason there is quite a significant urban tui population in Wellington. Whenever I see them I always wonder if they go and visit the tui in the forests and countryside, and talk about inner-city pressure and complain that you can’t get a decent kowhai flower in the middle of the night or something. Anyway, I’ve never seen one so close before and this particular specimen was adorable – quite rotund and almost like something out of a Disney cartoon as its stomach puffed in and out comically while singing its distinct, discordant call. Presently, a second tui appeared and Tim and I decided that there was some kind of burgeouning courtship happening, because both of them engaged in this hilarious behaviour where they fluffed out their feathers, and coyly pretended to ignore each other while hopping from branch to branch. Eventually they flapped off together to another tree – I get the feeling Tim and I were cramping their style, and obstructing how they were trying in their way to be free. (ahem, can't resist quoting Leonard Cohen unnecessarily there). I’m no audobon, heck, I'm not usually even that fussed on nature, but it was quite an enchanting moment and completely unexpected in this big-city setting.

Hmm. Somehow we decended into the ornithology round-up segment, my apologies for those of you who were expecting recipes and instead ended up with curmudgeonly ducks and rutting native birds.

By the time we got home I was hungry and managed to convince myself that the best course of action would be to make us some instant ice cream, as it would use up some of the fruit taking up space in the freezer, plus there was this bottle of cream in the fridge rapidly deteriorating. Nevermind that we’d just gone for a hearty walk, my need to create food comes first!

Yes, that’s right. I decided to make ice cream as a quick snack. But how? I hear you cry. Well, with the glazed eyes of a fifties housewife in an advertisement, I’ll tell you! Once you try this, no other foodstuff will satisfy!

I put two frozen, peeled bananas and about a cup of frozen boysenberries in the food processor and whizzed them to an appealing purple mess. Then, with the motor still running, I emptied in about 250mls cream. To explain it scientifically, the whole lot just kind of seizes together and turns into ice cream. The most deliciously textured, amazing ice cream you will ever try. The trick is to eat it right away, because freezing it for another day ruins the beautiful texture. Not only does the flavour of the berries shine through, you also get the delightful taste of fresh cream. And the colour is out of this world. All that in about 30 seconds and it fed Tim and I generously. For more people, just add more stuff. You could use any combination of frozen berries – or try with just frozen bananas. The important thing to remember is to keep the ratio of liquid to frozen fruit fairly even. You could of course use yoghurt, which wouldn't be wrong, but I can't emphasise enough how lovely the simple taste of cream and fruit is in this.

It’s just as quick to eat as it is to make, too. And yes, Tim did eat his out of a beer glass – or ‘barfighting mug’ as we call them. What can I say, he's a student. I had mine in a Nigella Lawson measuring cup. What can I say, I'm weird. But seriously - make this stuff. It’s so good it actually deserves it’s own fifties-style Madmen ad campaign in celebration of it - something along the lines of: “with this instant ice cream, now I have more time to iron his shirts!”

I hope you all have a lovely Easter break and do whatever it is that makes you happy. As I said earlier, I'm pretty hyped up for my hot cross buns on Sunday, but the age old question must be raised - to add or omit chocolate chips? I know they're not traditional, but then neither am I, and I did the trad thing last year...Any suggestions?

3 April 2009

pie fidelity


Do you ever get to that stage in a recipe, when perhaps the walls of your kitchen are schmeered with sugary paste and there's butter in your hair and a light dusting of flour coats all surfaces and you kind of think to yourself "Why did I attempt something this ambitious?" You've decided to make a braised dish involving seven wine-based reductions that weren't immediately apparent the first time you scanned the recipe, or maybe it occured to you that a poached meringue topped with toffee sculptures would be the perfect follow up to a meal, when suddenly it's 10.30pm and you've used every pan in the house and have internal bruising from trying to whisk egg whites to stiff peaks.

Maybe I paint a slightly dramatic picture, but the pie I made on Wednesday night more or less fell into this category. Luckily, this high-maintenance girlfriend of a recipe was worth it eventually because it tasted incredibly good, despite my ham-fisted tendencies threatening to ruin it at every step of the way...

Based on a recipe I found in Cuisine magazine (and you can find the original recipe here) the idea is to roll a mixture of grated eggplant, crumbled feta, eggs, mint and dill up into sausages with buttered filo pastry then coil them round in a pie plate, to create a pie with a difference. I'll be the first to admit that my own wobbly, bulging pie didn't quite match the neat-edged vortex of filo of the picture in Cuisine. This could be due to filo pastry being incredibly fiddly - I seemed to tear it every time I set my pastry brush down. Also, I replaced the eggplant with grated zucchini but didn't bother to let them drain in a colander and - getting what was coming to me - the mixture was quite liquid and difficult to wrangle.

I very nearly considered biffing it all and ordering in a curry, especially when the filled rolls of filo kept breaking as I laid them in the pie dish. I also didn't factor in how long it would actually take to bake (my advice to you all: factor in the time something will actually take to bake) so we had a relatively late dinner by the time it was done. Finally, it was a nightmare to slice up neatly. But luckily it tasted amazing, and how could it not, with all the good things in life like butter and pastry and feta appearing in such proportions. Would I try it again? Yes, and next time I'd be more careful in reading the instructions. And maybe renovate my kitchen so I have enough benchspace to deal with all the filo pastry. At present our benchspace falls into the "laughable to non-existant" end of the scale.

I took a slice to work the next day for lunch and waited hopefully for people to say "my stars that looks like a complicated, deliciously gourmet pie...what - you made it? What an asset you are to this company" But no-one did. Tasted good second time round though.

I had a day off in lieu from work on Friday. Tim and I went back to the Maranui Cafe thinking that at 2pm on a weekday it might be quiet. We thought wrong. It was packed, we had the choice of only two tables, and there was a steady stream of customers entering. I must say, my nerves were feeling a little jangled by the time we got there. You see - and I should perhaps warn you about the x-rated content here - on our way to the bus stop, I noticed a cicada resting casually - leisurely even - on my chest. I sort of froze up and flapped my arms ineffectually at Tim, who gallantly came to my rescue and flicked it away. Somehow it went down my top and decided to it quite apparent that my cleavage was not where it wanted to make a permanent home. At this stage I had no other option but to more or less remove my top. I'm quite thankful that ours is a quiet road. Because of this hair-raising incident we missed our bus - luckily they are fairly frequent - and between that, and the fact that the bus we did catch managed to break down twice on the way, I had a dark feeling that the whole thing just wasn't meant to be.

But it was. We finally arrived in Lyall Bay, climbed the stairs up to the cafe, and were seated immediately near (but not right in front of) the picture window. I ordered the vegetarian big breakfast and the very act of doing so made me feel a little more calm. By the time it was ferried to me by the charming, friendly waiter, I'd graciously made my peace with the world (but not that wretched cicada.)

Above: The vegetarian big breakfast, called the "Victory Breakfast" on the menu. It's dangerously good. I'd walk barefoot to Lyall Bay to taste those tomatoes again. Notice the generous dollop of pesto, and the size of the dark, glossy 'shrooms. The 5-grain bread (from Pandoro) was so delicious I nearly fainted with every bite.

Above: As you can probably surmise from the vast quantities of meat, Tim ordered the non-vegetarian "Big Bay Breakfast". He said the bacon was delicious and I can vouch for the quality of the kransky, as I audaciously stole a piece. The waiter who brought us our dish said there had been some kind of stuff-up out back with the poached eggs and said we were more than welcome to order fresh ones, but neither Tim nor I - fairly discerning when it comes to our eggs - had a problem with them.

Obviously this alone just won't do. We were going to buy cake to share afterwards but we were both so visibly unenthusiastic about how it would reduce the actual cake-per-person ratio that we quickly decided to do the logical thing, which was to get two cakes to share.

Above: A plum and coconut tart with a chocolate pastry base and yoghurt. It was lovely - the coconut gave the tart a delightfully dense, moist texture which contrasted with the smooth, ascerbic slices of plum dotted throughout. The pastry gave a further contrast in flavours without being too sweet. The yoghurt was nice as an accompaniment but we mostly chose it because it was offered for free and we like to squeeze out every last drop of value-juice.

Above: The caramel star cookie had the most wonderful filling. I may be a little biased since I have an intense love of caramel flavours, but nevertheless it was a nice cookie. The biscuits themselves sandwiching the filling were pleasant enough and not overly sweet which I think was a good choice.

As with last time, the Maranui Cafe has earned my whole-hearted recommendations. It's very easy to find as well - just jump on a number 3 bus to Lyall Bay. Although I have no idea what day of the week is best in terms of being relaxed about finding a table. I'll be honest, I was more impressed by the savoury options than the sweet, although I will stress that they didn't taste bought in and probably weren't. I do find it rare that a cake or pudding in cafes will knock me off my feet with its deliciousness. This could be that I'm not eating at places that are super-expensive, but I don't think it's that big an ask.
Now, I don't run a cafe or restaurant, but is it that hard to make your own cakes and desserts? Surely you are running such an establishment because you actually like making food? I hate it when I go out to dinner and the meal itself has been amazing but then the blah, blatantly bought in pudding disappoints. Don't even get me started on the state of the abysmal muffins you get served everywhere these days (especially at airport cafes - it's a kind of fatalistic instinct I have that whenever I'm stuck in an airport I get the urge to spend money on overpriced cakes...) What companies out there are purposefully making these challengingly dry, unloveable muffins?Isn't that appallingly wasteful, when their time and resources could be spent making quality cakes instead? I realise I'm talking about several things at once here but...any thoughts? Am I expecting way too much? I think not.

In other news, Mum is still in Argentina and I'm loving reading about her escapades on her blog. Daylight savings has started here and while it means that it will be darker earlier in the day, I'm adoring this transition stage where you wake up in the morning and realise it's earlier than your body thinks it is and you can go back to sleep - bliss! Finally, Tim and I are currently very, very into 30 Rock. I don't tend to get into TV shows when they're actually on TV as we have no reception and I prefer to just buy seasons on DVD where there are no ads, which is why we're so late to this particular party. But it's brilliant and densely so, with about 7 one-liners per humorous minute and Tina Fey has created a highly endearing main character in Liz Lemon.
Next time: Not sure...although I suppose since Easter is a-coming I'll probably try my hand at hot cross buns again.