29 December 2011

drinking peppermint schnapps with jackie wilson and sam cooke...

So Christmas has been packed up and put back in the cupboard where you keep the Christmas things. The giant ham from lunch on the big day is being slowly whittled down with each leftovers-based meal, and the wrapping paper has had its sellotape pieces peeled off and been respectfully folded and put away to be used for next year's presents.

I've spent a joyful few days like this: 

Lying on the couch in a remarkably realistic small cat costume. Jokes! I've been lying on the couch at home reading a Julie Andrews biography and mucking round online and sleeping in. And feeling sufficiently emboldened to ask Mum and Dad "say, do you guys want to watch Parks and Recreation? It's so amazingpleaselikeitIloveitsomuch." (Result: we did watch an episode, they liked it!)

Now that I'm back in Wellington - briefly, before taking off for a sure-to-be-blissful New Years with friends and then back up home to go camping with whanau in the same place we've camped since 1986 - my thoughts turn to resourceful things, like...could I dissolve all our leftover candy canes in vodka, to form homemade peppermint schnapps? The sugar content of the candy canes would surely soften the taste and the peppermint flavour would give it icy edge. 

Well, it worked. Spookily fast, the candy canes let go of their stripes and stain the vodka and glowing electric pink. By the next morning, there was no trace of them. How practical is a jar full of liquor that tastes like toothpaste and is filled with red food colouring? Um, not overly. But as with all funny liqueurs, you can find a use for them. Be it a punchily minty hot chocolate or...a punchily minty hot chocolate. Any ideas? But the cool thing about this is how instant it is, so if you get moving, you can have yourself a cute bottle of peppermint schnapps to see in the new year with. 

Spot the new-old plate that I picked up from home. New to me, old because it belonged to my dad's mum. The vodka you get doesn't need to be fancy - if the price of one litre of it is the same price as 750mls of another brand, then it's probably about right - but make sure it's vaguely drinkable. I have a feeling the stuff I got was a little too rough-edged, however I figure another night in the jar will mellow it out a little and let the sugar soften it up.

Homemade Peppermint Schnapps

1 litre vodka
10 or more candy canes

Find an airtight jar (non-plastic) that will fit 1 litre of liquid. Unwrap the candy canes, pile them into the jar, then pour over the vodka. Leave a couple of days if you can, but at least overnight. 

There was indeed more than one bottle of homemade drinks in the first photo. This one's not nearly as instant, but what it lacks in speed it makes up for in visual novelty value. Like, it looks like you're incubating an alien baby or something. It's a great conversation starter. I found out about Forty-Four, as it's known, in the Food Thesaurus book. You take an orange, make 44 cuts in it, push a coffee bean into each slice, and place in a jar with 44 teaspoons of sugar. Cover with brandy or vodka (I used vodka) and leave for forty-four days. On the forty-fourth day, remove the orange, cut it in half and squeeze the juice into the jar, leave for a day and then finally you're good.

I kept forgetting to make this, so it has really only been sitting for 22 days, but I'd like to think it's more or less where it needs to be.

There's no way you're going to get this before New Years, no matter how fast you move, however if you feel like a little project and something to look forward to, then feel free to try this too for fun times in the nearish future. The long sitting allows the sugar to slowly absorb into the resinous syrupy vodka, along with the intense oil from the pores of the orange skin and the coffee beans. At first all you taste is orange, followed quickly by a warm, slightly bitter hit of coffee. It might sound unusual but it's a pretty brilliant combination. 

Normally I try to keep it real on here - like, none of the photos are staged. If you see something in a photo, that's how I was going to consume it. But at the start of the day and with heaps to get done I had to concede to pouring myself a drink I was going to tip right back into the jar. The schnapps was a little too underdeveloped by this point to slowly sip on its own, so I tried - for lack of anything better - mixing it with lemonade. It tasted weirdly good. But I might need to test it a couple more times before the verdict graduates into "definitely good". Appropriately I also made cakeballs today, out of some leftover cake crumbled and rolled together with leftover cream cheese icing and melted white chocolate, and, for good measure, some raspberry flavouring. Two novelties are better than one, after all. 

Tim and I will be taking these two fine-ish liqueurs out to the house we're renting with some dear friends over New Years. Even though I prefer my liquor to be as dry as dry can be, I also find it very hard to say no to a novelty recipe. My head is all "what about Sour Coke Bottle Vodka? What about Orange Jellybean Vodka?" while my heart is like "you don't like sugary drinks, fool." And then my head replies with "But the pretty colours!" And I guess it's obvious by now which organ won the battle.
Title via: the quietly appealing 2pac song Thugz Mansion featuring Nas and J.Phoenix. 
Music lately: 

Ethel Merman, There's No Business Like Show Business. There's something I find strangely comforting about her brassy, intense voice. And this song is amazing.

Kate Nash, Foundations. I never really got into her first time round but can't stop listening to her debut album after hearing it properly recently. Like...daily. I know.
Next time: I hope you all have a safe and happy New Years. I'll see you in 2012 with something non-novelty, I promise.

24 December 2011

too late for second guessing, too late to go back to sleep

Cat tension at Christmastime has to be the tensest tension of all, don't you think? No-one does room-filling awkward silence and passive-aggressive stares and face-clawing like two mistrustful cats.

I mean these days for me Christmas is a time to be grateful above all for family and food and love, but one must also be realistic. So my ultimate Christmas tip is that if you're feeling like your family Christmas isn't going to be the smoothest day, for whatever reason - breakups, extreme political differences, old feuds, control issues - find two cats who don't like each other, put them in the room and their belly-deep snarls and fixed hateful gazes may well help make the humans in the room seem quite mellow in comparison. Bonus: if they settle down, they may then go nuzzle people and no-one can be angry or critical of your roast while patting a cat.

Also: Hasn't Poppy grown since we first saw her? She's the one on the right, Roger's on the left. 

It is Christmas Eve in New Zealand, which means it's the 23rd up in the northern Hemisphere. I love Christmas Eve most of all - the anticipation, the midnight baking, the present wrapping, the sellotape in the hair, the crying over a cake that just will not bake, the weird feeling watching the news and seeing that horrible things happen no matter what time of year it is, the Rock'n'Roll Christmas cassette with Australian session singers singing Do They Know It's Christmas turned up just a little too loud, seeing your parents' impressed faces when you organisedly place your presents under the tree, singing God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen to the cats who are suddenly united by their distinct unimpressedness for you.

Yes, midnight baking. It started off as disorganisation, now it's practically a tradition. But still disorganisation. I'm not saying you HAVE to do the homemade present thing, but if you're looking for something to make yourself feel less laid-back today; if you're wanting to supplement what's already under the tree; if your aunty or dad or whoever doesn't need any more stuff taking up space in the house; if you want to get someone a present but don't know them well enough to commit to buying them something; if you suddenly got a call from Great-Granny Mildred saying she's descending upon your home for Christmas and you have to provide her a gift - look, there's enough reasons to want to make someone food as a gift. Scorched almonds for all is also completely fine and takes up a lot less administration in the brain, but if you're feeling some last-minute frantic commitment, then read on, friends.

The HungryandFrozen List Of Last-minute, 11th Hour, Easy Homemade Christmas Presents That Won't Make You Cry If You Start Them After 11pm And Will Also Make You Look Quite Good In The Eye Of The Receiver.

First: White Chocolate Candy Cane Hearts. Slice the tails off two candy canes if you want them to be nice squat little love hearts like here, make them face each other, fill the cavity with melted chocolate and sprinkle over edible glitter, 100s and 1000s or your decoration of choice. Refrigerate, and give a couple to anyone under 10 (or under 10 at...heart!)

This list contains such wonders as Orange Confit and the easiest fruitcake...

...Christmas-Spiced Chocolate Cake....

...Gingerbread Cut-out Cookies....

...Rhubarb-Fig Jam...

.... and Coconut Condensed Milk Brownies.

Jams and Sauces and Things In Jars But Are Actually Pretty Easy Despite Looking Fancy:

Orange Confit (sliced oranges in syrup. They'll find things to do with it. Bonus: is cheap!)
Cranberry Sauce (So, so fast.)
Bacon Jam (The best to make at the last minute, because it needs refrigerating. Please tell the recipient this, please.)
Cashew Butter
Red Chilli Nahm Jim (for your cool relative, esp if accompanied by a jar of cashew butter.)
Cranberry (or any-berry) Curd (slightly more effort, so I'd do this before midnight - but so pretty.)
Rhubarb-Fig Jam (Easier than it sounds)

Baked Things, The Classic Choice:

Christmas-Spiced Chocolate Cake (This is also excellent for pudding on the day itself. Yes, you'll have to dash to the supermarket to get almonds but it's really easy and it doesn't matter if it sinks in the middle.)
Chocolate Orange Loaf Cake
Vegan Chocolate Cake (It's good! It's easy!)

Chocolate Chunk Oatmeal Cookies  (Dairy free!)
Coconut Macaroons
Chocolate Macaroons (These two macaroons aren't the fancy French kind, but they're amazingly easy, travel well, and are both delicious and gluten free. With the Coconut macaroon recipe, if you don't have the time/money/energy for ground almonds, just use the same quantity of dessicated coconut.)
Gingerbread Cut-out Cookies (vegan, hey-ohh!)
Christmas Cake (I know, what? But I ate this the very next day and it tasted great. If you gently microwave the fruit in the ginger beer and then stir in the liquor it should do the trick. The rest is just stirring!)
Coconut Condensed Milk Brownies
Salted Caramel Slice (This is a food blog, I have to use the words "salted caramel" once every post. It's a rule!)
Also, if you click on the link to the Orange Confit above, you'll see a recipe for the easiest, fastest fruit loaf, which is a GREAT present to give away to those in your family who you know actually eat fruitcake. It's dairy-free, too!


Moonshine Biffs (like homemade Milk Bottles!)
Raw Vegan Chocolate Cookie Dough Truffles (Actually just look through Hannah's wonderful wonderful archives if this isn't enough for you, she'll see you right.
Lolly Cake

I Am Already Asleep But Need A Present For That Person Who Needs A Present:

Candy Cane Chocolate Thing (No effort, vegan - well, I think candy canes are vegan - gluten free, amazingly delicious, just store it carefully so it doesn't melt)
White Chocolate Coco Pops Slice (Even less effort! Maybe try adding a little oil to the white chocolate so it doesn't sieze up like mine did.)

Merriest of merry Christmasses to you all - whatever you do or don't celebrate at this time of year, I hope that plenty of love and good things come your way. I'm currently at home with the whanau and it feels good. Yesterday at the airport while waiting for my flight the news came in of another big earthquake in Christchurch - followed by a sickening and unfair wave after wave of huge aftershocks. Thinking of you all in Canterbury, and hoping the earth settles down already. Seriously. Whether Christmas is your thing or not, some peace on earth and goodwill to (hu)mankind is top of my wishlist right now.

Enoch the Christmas Skeleton says Merry Christmas too. (Oh, those parents of mine...)
Title via: Nothing speaks of Christmas Festivity like Defying Gravity from the musical Wicked, sung by the magical Idina Menzel. Nothing. (I'm sure I've said this before but even if you hate all musicals stick around to the end, it's spectacular spectacular.)
Music lately:

So one of our Christmas traditions chez moi is listening every year to the same old Christmas cassettes. One such cassette is the amazing Tin Lids (ie Jimmy Barnes' kids) "Hey Rudolph" tape, which has the kind of exuberant 90s production that's good to hear at this excessive time of year. Another one is this really old Disney Christmas tape which features a (pre CGI) Chipmunks Christmas Song, strangely appealing and horribly catchy. Bringing a little much-needed classiness to our collection, is Bing Crosby and his rich handsome voice.

Next time: I plan to resurface here on the 28th, with something entirely non-Christmassy, I promise. MERRY CHRISTMAS EVERYONE, YOU'RE ALL AMAZING PEOPLE, AND JUST REMEMBER YOU CAN'T OUT-TENSION A TENSE CAT.

22 December 2011

it won't be long now, any day...

A true story about an untrue story: During my dictionary-reading, daydreaming, dancing, painting-my-nails-with-twink-ing youth, I tried writing a Baby Sitters Club book. I didn't know it was "fan fiction" at the time, due to the internet not being widespread - the only people I knew who had it was my cool cousins who lived in Auckland, and my uncommonly tech-savvy Nanna. No, I pridefully considered it something of a manuscript that I could mail to Ann M Martin, and she would then be so grateful and impressed that she might publish it or something. (Fun fact: in the plot I may have unwittingly and independently invented the concept of grills/jewelled clip on braces. I kid you not.) 

I have a point. It is this: at the time of all this writing, I did not believe in self-editing. It was probably a bit of youthful vanity, as well as how I knew the Baby Sitters Club every which way to Sunday and they're pretty easy to write once you get the hang of things. I would just write and write in my big notebook and then declare it all perfect. Fast forward to this year, when I went to a course where we were advised to reread everything we write for online then cut it in half, so it appeals to the fickle, short attention spanned readers. I'm better at editing now, but am still resolutely long-form in my blogging, no matter what the experts say.

Wait, this is the point: Christmas is coming, everyone's tired, nobody has time, so I'm going to try make this blog post much shorter than usual by editing myself more ruthlessly. I could've just said that at the start of this blog post, but um, I'm not that good at self-editing. And what other food blogger's gonna freely divulge their questionable, oblivious fan-fic past? (Because if there are others, can you let me know? I bet we'd be great friends.) 

This recipe is a convergence of a few different ideas that I had, turning into this: Halved capsicums, with a halved tomato tucked inside each half. Once roasted, fill a further time with scorched, crisp cauliflower pieces. It doesn't sound like much but I promise you it's brilliant. 

While I'm getting confessional, around the same time I also attempted to write a young adult novel about a teen girl who wins a radio competition to meet her favourite girl band who she's obsessed with but she has to shave her hair first. Then her, her mum and her best friend fly to New York and meet the girl band. And make friends with a nightclub singer. (I'd just seen Pretty Woman for the first time, so I called the nightclub The Blue Banana.) Gotta admit, I did think it would make me a Teen Millionaire. (It didn't.)

Roast Capsicum with Roast Tomato and Fried Cauliflower

Two firm red capsicums
Two ripe tomatoes
Five or so cauliflower florets
Rice bran oil
Brown sugar
Thyme leaves

Set your oven to 220 C (450 F) and put a sheet of baking paper on an oven tray. 

Halve your capsicums, carefully removing any seeds, membraney stuff and the green stems. Half the tomatoes, slicing out the green bit. You also want to slice out the dividing wall of flesh - no need to worry about the seeds, all good if they're in or out - but you want to make sure there's a bit of a cavity for the cauliflower later.

Sit a halved tomato inside each capsicum half, so they fit/spoon together. Over each, sprinkle about a teaspoon of oil and a pinch of brown sugar. Scatter over a little salt and lightly dust with cinnamon, then roast for 30 minutes or until softened, wrinkly-skinned, and slightly scorched.  

While it's roasting, finely slice up your cauliflower florets into small pieces. Heat up a couple of tablespoons of oil in a pan and throw in the florets, stirring a bit but allowing to sit as well so it browns thoroughly. Remove the tray from the oven, roughly fill each tomato cavity with cauliflower and throw over some thyme leaves. Serve, with rice or pasta or bread or anything you like. 

They're flipping delicious (of course they are, or I wouldn't be telling you about them.) Something in the sweet, smoky red vegetables and the nutty, crunchy cauliflower with the rich thyme leaves makes it feel like you're eating so much more than a few vegetables sitting awkwardly on top of each other. Anyway, they only sit awkwardly at first. Give the tomatoes and capsicums some time under the oven's heat and they start nestling and burrowing into each other like sleepily benign cats, leaving plenty of space to add the cauliflower. Add anything you like to this - feta, coriander seeds, sesame oil - but I like it clean and plain and simple. 

This afternoon I fly up home for Christmas with my family. I'll be a bit sad not to be hanging out with Tim over this time but I can't wait to see whanau, to sleep, to eat, to hang out with the cats, to listen to our old Christmas cassettes and CDs, and to generally be thankful for the good things in life. What else can you do?

Witness the swiftness: this blog post is nearly finished already, while normally at this point I'd still be describing at length the emotions I feel when I eat cauliflower. Also: you may have noticed that the blog is looking slightly different, I had a tutu round and managed to score much bigger photos and a better font already for my header image. Am amazed I have any readers at all, considering how long my usual blog posts are and, upon reflection, how gross the font was on my previous header image. Give yourself a pat on the back for your perseverance! 
Title via: It Won't Be Long Now, sung by the amazing Karen Olivo from the (presumably - I've never actually seen it) also amazing musical In The Heights, from the genius mind of mondo-babe Lin-Manuel Miranda. 
Music lately:

I bought Ria Hall's EP this morning and have already listened to it many, many times. Best of Me is still my favourite song off it but I Am A Child struck me as particularly beautiful, all contemplative and dreamy but slowly building in momentum.

Pieces of a Man is one of my most-loved Gil Scott-Heron records, and while I don't have a favourite track off it, When You Are Who You Are i songs that always makes me happy.
Next time: You know what, I reckon I can get another quick blog post in before the big day itself. I'm thinking last minute Christmas food gift ideas and several cat photos (well, that's what I do when I'm at home - chase round after the cats with my camera.) 

19 December 2011

and what's more baby, I can cook

Christmas christmas christmas christmas christmas christmas christmas!

Christmas christmas christm- I'm just kidding. But it is upon us once more. Which means it's time for our 6th Annual Christmas Dinner and follow-up blog post! Back in 2006 there were five of us, I wasn't on Twitter and I didn't have my blog. What did I even do with my time? Six years later, there were at least fifteen people, the party went for 10 hours and there were intermittent twitter updates from nearly all involved, because that's just how life is these days. In every sense: I never thought those years ago that we'd have a veritable family of so many good people. I'm not the best out there at making and keeping friends - to the point where getting referred to by someone as part of "my ladies" nearly brought me to tears the other day. 

But anyway, let the bumper Christmas Dinner edition blog post commence! The day goes like this: I cook a huge feast, everyone turns up and eats it. This is my idea of fun, so don't imagine me crying in the kitchen while everyone else is whooping it up. Alas, not everyone that we love could be there on Saturday but on the whole it was pretty astounding that we got so many people in the room this close to Christmas. Or anytime. 

Involtini. I make this every year. It's Nigella Lawson's recipe, which for me has evolved and simplified into slices of eggplant, grilled four at a time in the sandwich press, with a spoonful of herbed, almond-studded quinoa rolled messily in each, covered in tomato sauce and baked. You're welcome to feta it up or use bulghur wheat but I had some well-meaning half packets of quinoa that needed using up, resulting in this being not only entirely vegan but also gluten free. Hey-oh!

Keeping it Nigella I simmered vast quantities of pickled pork, or gammon as it's known in the UK, in liquids till they turned into ham - in the foreground is the one I cooked in Old Mout Cranberry Cider, and in the hindquarter is one I cooked in Budget Cola. Both wonderful. Cola has a smoky cinnamon kinda flavour while cider has that distinctive musky fermented-fruit thing going on, both of which are excellent when absorbed into the fibres of sweet, salty pink ham. Pickled pork can be a bit of a misson to find but it's worth it - I got mine from Preston's butchers (near Yan's on Torrens Terrace in Wellington city) and the people there were so friendly and it was so reasonably priced and I totally recommend them.

Didn't have the mental capacity for gravy, so instead I made up a batch of the wondrous balm that is Bacon Jam, and then - as you might be able to make out here - sprinkled over some edible glitter. Christmas christmas christmas! Honestly, this is one of my favourite discoveries of 2011 - nay, my life. It's jam, but instead of raspberries or whatever, there is bacon. It's perfect, it tastes as dazzlingly sticky and sweet and salty as it sounds, and it gives the feast an insouciant Ron Swansonish air.

This Hazelnut, Cranberry and Mushroom Stuffing was a new recipe from Fine Cooking magazine - entirely vegan, with the ingredients being both Christmassy but also ideally suited to each other. I simplified it to suit my needs and budget. For a recreation of my appropriation (across the nation!) roughly cube a large loaf of sourdough or similarly intense bread, drizzle with oil and toast in a hot oven. Meanwhile, fry up a diced onion and a whole bunch o' mushrooms - the fancier the better, but I used regular button types - the real important thing here is quantity, as they reduce down. Mix together the whole lot, add a large handful of toasted hazelnuts and dried cranberries. Pour over 1 cup of stock (I used miso soup - it's what I had) and bake for about 40 minutes at 190 C/350 F. The rich, sweet hazelnuts and savoury aggro of the mushrooms plus the occasional burst of cranberry against the croutonesque bread is some kind of taste revelation, I assure you.  

I make this cornbread stuffing every year. Cornbread's one of my favourite foods as is, but mixing it in with eggs, butter, and cranberries then baking it again is perfection achieved. There was a bit of trouble in making it this time though, and I'm going to write it in tiny, tiny letters so you don't all go green around the gills and start crying instead of my intention of making you salivate like hungry Alsatians. (Three rotten eggs in a row. THREE. They had weeks before the "use by" date and I even did the thing where you check it in a glass of water. The utter depressingness of that dull, formless thud with which the contents of the shell hit the bowl combined with the smell which hits you straight in the back of the throat takes you to a dark place when people are turning up in an hour, but with some reassurance, some rescue remedy and some hastily opened windows we got through it.) Also, spot the peas - I heedlessly bought 2kg of them going cheap at Moore Wilson a while back and so their presence on this table, in order to cut down on my freezer's crowded infrastructure, was non-negotiable.

Butter in cubes on a small plate with a proper knife: because I am turning into my mother more and more every day. I love that my friends who stayed for ages and required a late-night snack asked where this butter was so they could spread it on the leftover cold potatoes. 

"FLIRTINIS ALL ROUND". Because of a few lines in The Mighty Boosh, and because increasingly it seems everything I consume has to have a pop culture reference attached to it, I made this drink. Increasingly come-hither was that Nigella Lawson herself recently put a recipe for it online, giving me even more assurance that it was meant to be. Flirtinis are fairly hardcore but divided amongst many guests and with lots of food as blotting paper it's all good. In a large jug, mix one cup (250ml) vodka and one cup fizzy white wine (eg, Lindauer) and top up with pineapple juice - about a litre, depending on the size of your vessel of course. Stir with a wooden spoon like you're Betty Draper and serve in plastic cups so you don't have to do so many dishes. 

Oh, this pie. Coffee Toffee Salted Cashew Pie, to use its full title. Another revelation from Fine Cooking, which I adapted quite easily to make necessarily dairy-free. And, with all due respect to Fine Cooking, to be less sugary and to include cashews. I think American palates have a different capacity for sugar than ours, and also cashews make a cheaper - but still exciting - substitute for their choice of pecans. 

Into a pie plate lined with a half-batch of this cookie dough, (minus the spices, and you don't need to blind bake it) tumble 1 cup of salted roasted cashews and pour over a whisked up mixture of 1 cup golden syrup, 3/4 cup dark brown sugar, 2 tablespoons rum (I used Smoke and Oakum's Gunpowder Rum), 2 tablespoons instant espresso powder - yes instant, it's useful for baking and it smells weirdly alluring, okay? Look for the blue packet by Greggs - 2 tablespoons rice bran oil and three eggs. Bake at 190 C/375 F for 45 minutes to an hour, covering with tinfoil if need be. You then need to let it cool completely. I didn't see this instruction and it would've saved me a reckless moment of "We'll just eat it now and if it's not set it can just be sauce for the ice cream, dammit!" Fortunately everyone managed to talk me down in a chorus of soothing voices while we stashed it precariously in the freezer, and it really was better for a good chilling, especially as the cold went some way to soften the intense sugar hit. It's an incredible pie, with salty creamy cashews in their pool of intensely dark caramel-caffiene filling. 

And finally, some ice cream, since that's my kneejerk culinary response to the promise of people in our house. This is the only photo I got of said ice cream, but in the back is my own Chocolate Coconut Ice Cream - which I've made many times now since Christmas 2009. It's beautiful and it's dairy-free and I can now make it in my sleep almost literally, but should you be awake and trying it for the first time it's not overly taxing either. In the front is Lemonade Sorbet (with a hard 't') which started life as failed jelly; it was a little weird but refreshing, and the price was right. 

There were also two roast chickens - but no-one wants me to try and take a decent photo of their sorry hides, and beautiful canapes from Jo, and homemade bread rolls brought by Piona (that's Pia and Fiona but don't their names condense perfectly?) There was a moment where everyone became anxious and queasy during Barbra Streisand's Jingle Bells (you think I'm exaggerating! Not this time!) there was a psychological skirmish during supercool boardgame Apples to Apples; there was an incredible reveal from Pia whose orange dress looked cool enough under her coat, but upon removal of that coat it turned out the dress sleeves were layered and ruffly like a flamenco skirt on each arm; there was candy cane whittling; there was imaginary Christmas cracker pulling; there was semi-unpremeditated singing of Total Eclipse of the Heart; there was a portrait of me etched in a pudding bowl; there were at least ten candy canes per capita, especially once I got changed into my candy cane-esque dress; and there was so much food brought to donate to the Downtown Community Ministry Foodbank that Tim and I will have to drive it down in our ute because it's too much to lug down in our collection of environmentally conscious yet aesthetically designed shopping carry bags. We love our friends.

And now, mere singular days from Christmas I am typically underslept, however I managed to finally get a tiny bit of Christmas shopping done, including a small gift for myself of a flower hairclip. It's amazing how when your personality and brainpower has evaporated due to lack of sleep, put a big flower in your hair and you can trick yourself into thinking you're still an interesting person.

It makes me feel like this: Look at how zany and witty I am! There's a flower in my hair! I have such a personality!
Title via: Lea Delaria singing I Can Cook Too from On The Town. This challenging and excellently subject-ed song is especially good in her brassy growl of a voice.
Music lately: 

Still Haven't Got My Gift by The Goodfun. Hilarious. But also a really nice tune.

O Holy Night, Liz Callaway and her sister Ann Hampton Callaway. You may think you're over this son but Liz's silvery voice against Ann's rich golden one is pure joy for the ear canals.

Julien Dyne, Fallin' Down - the mellow, slinky antithesis to my Broadway dalliances.
Next time: I was really convinced I'd have time to blog about the roast tomato-stuffed roast capsicums, but it just didn't work out, no matter how I tried. So I guess I'll change up that aim to see if I can get them done before Christmas now...

12 December 2011

candy cane girl, don't you know my name girl?

Ever feel like what the French call les incompetents? If like me, "oui, le constantly-ment", then I salute you. My useless actions always seem amplified - I'm much more likely to dwell on slamming into a doorframe, saying something without thinking, or hassling everyone about but not winning a blogging award. Or sometimes I'll be walking quietly down the street and my brain will say something along the lines of "hey, remember this very specific mistake/bad judgement call/awkward situation?" When all this happens I try and steer the brain towards thinking positively, shrinkening the tiny or huge mistakes and remembering the good things. What else can you do? (Apart from not make mistakes? Which: doubties.)

I try instead to remember small things, like Tim and I amusing ourselves at a cafe by bags-ing clothes we liked from passers-by and the windows in the shop opposite. A person walking a dalmatian dog passed by and I hissed "Be cool" and Tim waved at the dog enthusiastically and I was all we so get each other (although depending on your stance this anecdote could also fall into the les incompetents category.) Like friends who instinctively invite themselves round for wine just when you feel like friends and wine. Like getting a tweet reply from people in The Wire or on Broadway. And like this utterly manageable Christmassy snack to go with my Christmassy movie reference. It has less ingredients than I have eyelashes after a night wearing mascara (seriously, mascara is like a tiny version of one of those weird rolly things that remove lint from your clothes...for my eyelashes) and - the snack that keeps on giving - is also charmingly simple to make, strangely delicious to eat, and aggressively festive to behold.

Make it when you've got people coming round and you don't know what to serve up - especially since the two main ingredients can be bought from most corner dairies; make it when you feel like things should be more recognisably yuletide-y than they are; make it if you've had a hard day which can be soothed by the feeling of a knifeblade plunging through solid sugar; make it when you're wavering between "Shut up, self! Your life is good! Check your privelige and stop complaining!" and "I just want to hug a large cat and allow its soft pelt to absorb my salty tears." 

So, yes, this conversation again - I didn't win the blogger award I was nominated for. D'oh! I feel like the Raul Esparza of blogger awards. But you can't go round hitching your wagon to every star that rolls by. Had I won, of course, I would've talked about it heaps, and big congratulations to the winner. But here we are. Asking for votes isn't something I love, and while I didn't quite have the energy to be involved, I also didn't have the energy not to be involved, if that makes sense. On the upside of things, it's cool that someone/s nominated me, thanks heaps everyone who did vote because of - or in spite of - my petitioning, I'm pretty sure I got some new readers out of this (do stay!) and it's a good learning experience.

So what even is this recipe? It's so simple, and yet a triumph of both texture and flavour. The sugary crunch against soft chocolate snap; the spicy chill of synthetic peppermint flavouring melting into the cocoa darkness. While I have a feeling I've seen this recipe before somewhere other than my brain, I also can't place it specifically. That said, I haven't tried googling it or anything. But importantly, it's easy, it's delicious, it's beautiful. In fact the most difficult part is wrangling the wrapping off the candy canes - this strange plastic, which on the candy canes is like trying to scrape off a layer of clear nailpolish, and then when finally removed it floats around and clings obstinately to your eyebrows. 

Candy Cane Chocolate Thing (Working Title, I'm just not feeling "slice".)

250g dark chocolate. (I use Whittakers. It is both delicious, and the best.)
1 tablespoon coconut oil or plain oil (I like rice bran) or even Kremelta, if you dare.
Five candy canes
Edible Glitter (optional)

Place the unwrapped candy canes on a chopping board, and carefully, using a big knife, chop away at them till they're reduced to peppermint splinters.

Melt the chocolate, a decent grind of salt, and the oil together gently either in the microwave or in a metal bowl that's sitting on a small pot of simmering water (not actually touching the water.) Pour into a smallish tin - if it's silicone you're all good, but consider lining it with baking paper if it's ceramic or metal or something. Once it has cooled a little, sprinkle the candy cane shards over evenly and top with glitter. Chill and slice evenly. 

This is best when freezing cold, to encourage maximum crunch and minimum melting in your hand. Also good topped, if you will, with a tasteful and elegant dusting of edible glitter. You could double the chocolate, to make it thicker, or double the candy canes, to make it crunchier and prettier. Don't leave out the salt - I know salted everything these days is getting a little blah, but its intensity not only balances out the sweetness, but also makes everything taste more of itself.

Candle in the background. So meaningful. 

Every time I'm convinced peppermint flavouring is as fun as eating food right after after cleaning your teeth, a combination like this comes along to change my mind. While it looks like it'd make an ideal gift, it's a little too melty to be sit around in a wrapped box for hours under the tree. Instead, whip it out when you've got guests and they'll hopefully be so dazzled by the pretty shards of candy cane, that you'll look far, far more competent than you might be feeling.  

I know I'm always sleepy these days but lately life's been like when you go to get Chinese takeaways and you optimistically stuff way too much food from the buffet table into your plastic container and it bulges out the lid and noodles dangle out the side, and then you insist on eating it all rather than just put it in the fridge and admit defeat about your stomach capacity. That is to say, I was busy and had amazing times, (like karaoke - you all missed out on seeing Tim and I sing Wuthering Heights - cases of wine appearing, skidding down a hallway in socks, dancing (possibly terrifyingly) wild and free with friends, attending book group that went on for five hours because we were talking about everything ever. Would rather have the overstuffed $7 buffet container than a single crabstick off the menu any day (wait, that metaphor makes no sense, let's just finish things here.)

Finally, I don't know how many times you've seen Home Alone but that's what the Les Incompetents quote comes from - I was talking to someone on Twitter about how I'd wanted to use it on my blog for a while, and lo, the universe provides me with lots of incompetency to not so much quote it as turn it into a thematic motif for my life, or something. Yay for Twitter - even though I've only met this person a few times, I can say sincerely, this one's for you, @Sakura_59!

Title via: People, there are just not that many songs referencing candy canes, which makes no sense to me. Luckily the White Stripes not only made a song, they basically devoted their working life to resembling peppermint-flavoured candy.
Music lately: 

Ladi6 released a beautiful video for her beautiful song Jazmine DL. She's so awesome I can't even talk about her properly without a good night's sleep so I'll just link through to the video and leave it at that.

The song that always, always makes me feel better, but especially during an attack of the les incompetents: Die, Vampire, Die. 
Next time: I was going to tack it on as an afterthought but I like it so much it'll get its own post, and hopefully act as a nice buffer between all the Christmas overload. I'll leave you with one word: Capsimato. (Also these parentheses and this explanatational colon: it's roast tomato inside roast capsicum. Just in case capsimato wasn't working for you.)

4 December 2011

"and altogether quite impossible to describe...." "blonde".

First: you have till the eighth to vote for HungryandFrozen/me in the Concrete Playground blogger awards! Please and thank you, with as much sincerity as words on a screen can convey. (Edit: please note the competition is now totally closed. Did not win. Am writing a new blog post though!)

I wonder what it's like having a significant effect upon people? From afar, not even realising any responsibility, Nigella Lawson influences me constantly. Having thrown the word "girlcrush" around with friends a lot recently, I realised for me the line between "celebrity crush" and "general celebrity obsession" is a fine one, and can mean anything from "I want to kiss you on the mouth, sooner the better" to "Oh how I want to hang out with you and learn from you and develop injokes and hilarious photos of us having fun times together". Tim tends to occupy the crushy segment of my brain the most, but in lieu of hanging out - or anything! - with Nigella, you could do worse than bake like her. (What Would Nigella Do?) I started off with a sandwich bag filled with cream cheese icing leftover from another cake, which I'd stashed in the freezer, La Lawson-styles - and it works really well as long as it's airtight - and thought I'd capitalise on my pretend organised-ness by actually using it up. This motivation transformed itself into an idea: white chocolate brownies, the sweetness roughened up a little by a hint of bitter coffee, then resweetened in the form of cream cheese icing.

Being fairly confident these days with inventing recipes, I ploughed ahead and made them happen. Okay, there's not actually any dark chocolate in them, so they're more blondies than brownies. And then, my sneaky secret ingredient of one small teaspoon ground coffee - which I pictured ever so subtly rounding out the white chocolate - somehow tinted the whole mixture a deep, sludgy brown. After tasting the mixture liberally, the coffee flavour was highly apparent. Okay, cool, so they're mocha blondies now or something. Nervous about overbaking them into boring, cakey submission, I took them out of the oven after a conservative 20 minutes, allowed them to cool, then proudly cross-hatched them with said cream cheese icing.

All was well, my Blondies complete and another new recipe successfully created. And then I tried to slice into them. I know brownies and their blonde pals are supposed to be squishy but this was liquidy and entirely raw batter, hidden under a thin veneer of properly cooked stuff. And all that icing. After some deliberation (ie, me going like this) I just threw them in the oven, icing and all. 

Blondies II. We've lost the pretty blinding white icing, but in fact I felt triumphant - that it was meant to be, even! - because baking means the icing isn't nearly as viciously sugary. And then I looked closer. The damn thing still wasn't cooked properly. It was still too gooey to slice properly. Generations to come will speak in hushed tones of the batter they could not bake!

By this stage, with a savage case of the sugar-sweats not helped by the cruelly increasing humidity, I recklessly threw it back in the oven, not so much hoping for the best as much as crossing my fingers that this wasn't a shameful waste of ingredients, time, and brain cells.

And then they came right. Finally.

How little did I know, when taking this photo of Whittaker's White Chocolate, how much stress this recipe would cause. 

At the time, my only issue was "are close-up photos of the whisk dripping with batter a little overdone? Do I even care, because I personally find them awesome?" Simple, naive times.

I give you the recipe, but cautiously. I know I could just call them Mocha Blondies but I prefer the lipsmacking Nigella-ness of "Coffee-tinted" (see: influence) and as the coffee ended up overstepping the white chocolate element it feels necessary to properly warn you. 

White Chocolate Brownies With Cream Cheese Icing
Which turned into Coffee-tinted Blondies with Cream Cheese Icing
Which turned into The Blondies That Could Not Be Baked: Witness The Incredibleness!
Which finally settled into Coffee-tinted Blondies With Baked Cream Cheese Icing.

200g butter
300g white chocolate (I use Whittakers...the best white chocolate around, I reckon) 
3 eggs
150g brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground coffee beans
1/2 teaspoon cocoa
Decent grind of salt
200g flour

Carefully melt 100g of the white chocolate together with the butter. Allow it to cool a little - otherwise the eggs'll scramble upon impact - then beat in the sugar and the eggs. Stir in the cocoa and coffee then fold in everything else. Tip into a paper-lined baking tray, then bake for about 30 - 40 minutes. If it still feels wobbly on top, bake for another 10 to 15.

Optional: beat together softened cream cheese and icing sugar, then spoon into a small plastic sandwich bag, snip a small hole in the corner, then use it to pipe out the icing on top of the brownies. You could then bake it again for ten minutes, or not, depending on your sweetness capacity and how cooked your blondies are...

This one's for you, Nigella!

Speaking of inspirational women, I went to my first ever Roller Derby game on Saturday, with Tim, Kim and Brendan. It was so fun - the speed and the skill and the community feel and the amazing clothes. About halfway through our seats felt wobbly, but I barely noticed since we were on the stands and not overly stable. As soon as this had registered in my mind, an enormous clattering noise appeared and the building shook. Earthquake. It went on long enough that I ducked down so I was covered by the chair in front of me, and for bits of debris for fall from the ceiling. Then suddenly it was over and I was so thankful - while essentially it wasn't much of anything, I think you still react in the same way that you would if it was going to be a bigger quake, and the comedown from that adrenalin rush is still significant. It was large enough - 5.7 in Picton! - that mentally I started into dignity-free survival mode. And then it was over. After the game, seeking emotional refuge, we all descended upon our friend Jo and watched TV and ate dumplings and drank cider and the whole thing was unbelievably comforting.

But what do the blondies taste like, finally? Distinctly white chocolatey, with a melt-on-the-tongue texture and a smooth coffee flavour - even the slightest threat of bitterness is seen off by the rich, sweet batter. The cream cheese icing, once baked, doesn't have the same soft sharpness as the regular stuff, but on the other hand it's not nearly as sweet. Although these took three goes in the oven and multiple direction changes, they're so delicious and I'm still calling them a success.

Finally, a further reminder, yes, twice in one blog, that you can feel free to vote for this blog if you feel strongly enough about it, in the Concrete Playground blogger awards. You have until Thursday. Am optimistically picturing the kind of last-minute triumph that you might have seen in Sister Act II, Remember The Titans, and/or A Mighty Wind. Involving a montage scene where the votes climb and there's emotional, swelling music and my face looking like this. Underneath all that optimism is also some resignation that I might be the only one that feels this way about my blog. But if nothing else, that's a good lesson to have learned. Maybe.
Title via: The highly-tense-in-all-the-right-ways song What Is This Feeling from the magical musical Wicked. Somehow this musical, however ridiculous, affects me emotionally now as much as it did four years ago. 
Music lately: 

Ali Farka Toure and Toumani Diabate's masterpiece album. Can listen to this constantly and never get sick of it. So beautiful.

King Kapisi's new track Can't Stop Won't Stop - awesome tune, awesome video. Love Rapley's singing over the chorus. 

Barbra Streisand. I thought Jenna Maroney's Jingle Bells was intense and unhinged, but Barbra's - a non-parody, even - wins the prize. 
Next time:

28 November 2011

i salt and pepper my mango

Story time.

The weather in Wellington has been particularly extreme over the last couple of days. It's no time for skirts or dresses. Luckily I've got a super awesome bright red jumpsuit with power shoulders, gold buttons and palazzo pant legs. Don't try and construct an image of what that might look like, just believe me on the "super awesome" claim. Especially when it's worn with a turquoise scarf. Said jumpsuit has all the delightful flippiness of a skirt, with all the reassuring practicality of pants. On most days. Today the breeze rendered the crotchal-region fabric near-pointless as it continuously inflated my trouser legs so they looked like spooning hot air balloons. No major biggie though, were it not for my rapidly-sinking stockings. They would not stay up. There came a point where they were making their way towards my ankles just as my pant-legs were flying upwards. Taking advantage of the quiet side street I was walking through, I hiked up my stockings back to where they belong, around my waist. Doing the job properly, I was getting quite into it - lunging and wiggling and really luxuriating in the hoisting action till they were back up on my hips again. Finished, I look up, and see an elderly person, holding a video camera. Pointing straight at me.

The camera wasn't sinister; I got the impression they were optimistically filming the nearby thoroughfare in case the wind caused anything strange to happen, so they could then pass it on to the humourous segment of a late-night news show so they could gain fame and riches. I...could well be that segment filler. Needless to say, my tights started sagging again immediately, but I didn't hike them up till I was round the corner. I have my dignity.

I have come to the conclusion that I'll never be intimidatingly cool, or even just intimidating and/or cool (either of which would've come in handy SO MANY TIMES in my life) but on the other hand...at least I've got some stories to tell. And you never need feel nervous about saying hello to me. Unless you've got a video camera and I've been lavishly adjusting my undergarments.

Also not intimidating: the recipes I have for you today. One, a simplified version of a beautiful Yotam Ottolenghi recipe - rice, mangoes, coconut, peanuts, chilli, mint - and the other, a little dish I came up with involving roasted cauliflower and whole spices and almonds.

I say simplified because I had so many moments of "well I can't find that so I'll use this" and "that's a bit expensive, I'll use this instead" and also I'm in bed and don't have the mental capacity to get out of bed and find the Plenty cookbook. So this is my adaptation. A truly lazy dinner. You're essentially cooking some rice and stirring stuff into it. But, as with any recipe of that tricksy and handsome man Ottolenghi, there's so much beauty and freshness and bold flavour that it's only you who need know how easy it really is.

Rice Salad with Mango, Coconut and Peanuts

Adapted from Ottolenghi's Plenty.

1/2 cup basmati rice
1/2 cup long grain brown rice (OR just one cup basmati)
1 tablespoon rice bran or peanut oil
1/2 a ripe, but firm mango
1 red capsicum
1/3 cup peanuts
1 red onion or a bunch of spring onions, finely sliced
1 red chilli, finely sliced, or 2 teaspoons sambal oelek (which is what I used)
1/2 cup shredded coconut or dessicated (but preferably shredded) (but I only had dessicated, so)
A handful each of mint and coriander

In a large pan with a lid, heat the rice grains in the oil for a minute or two, stirring a little to stop it burning. Tip in 2 1/2 cups water and a pinch of salt, bring to the boil then lower the heat, clamp on the lid, and leave slowly cooking away for about 15 minutes (although check for done-ness at 10). Allow to cool a little and tip into a bowl.

Roast the peanuts till darkened in the oven - it takes a little while but don't ignore them. Fry the spring onions or red onion till crispy, thinly slice the capsicum and dice the mango flesh. Toast the coconut in a pan or spread it out on a baking sheet and use the same heat of the oven that you cooked the peanuts in, either way you want it to be light brown in colour.

Mix everything into the rice - carefully - and divide between two plates. Top with the herbs.

The right mix of raw and hot here - you've got the cooling, slippery, elusively fragrant mango and crisp juicy capsicum rubbing shoulders with almost-crunchy coconut, nutty (duh!) peanuts and the red chilli's bite. Rice itself tastes beautiful - I don't really appreciate it enough being a pasta fiend - but it really suits hanging out with these ingredients. Obviously it's better if you can find shredded coconut but I promise the cheapest dessicated stuff will have its place once you toast the heck out of it. Cheers, Ottolenghi.

As for my recipe, Roasted Cauliflower with Toasted Whole Spices and Almonds it's even lazier. Stick as many cauliflower florets as you like on a baking tray and roast them at a high heat - I went for 230 C, which is 450 F, till tinged thoroughly with brown. Towards the end - or even immediately after you turn off the heat on the oven - roast 1/4 cup whole almonds for five - ten minutes, till slightly darkened. In a pan, heat 1 teaspoon each of cumin seeds, coriander seeds, nigella seeds, and fennel seeds if you've got them. The two essentials are coriander and cumin, so play round if you like. Only do it for a minute or so, then remove from heat, stir in a shake of ground cinnamon and a pinch of salt, and tip onto a chopping board along with the almonds. Chop everything roughly (I'm not expecting much to happen here with the spices, just agitate them a little with the blade, it's the nuts getting chopped that's the main thing.) Arrange the cauliflower florets on a plate, drizzle with sesame oil, and sprinkle over all the nuts and seeds. Eat.

Viewed in close up, the seeds and nuts look all earthy and magical and like they should have the words "GAME OF THRONES" superimposed over the top (maybe just in my mind. How often can I use "it's so late at night and I'm tired" as an excuse? All the times!)

More importantly, it's delicious - all that heating and roasting and toasting brings out everything good about the ingredients. Coriander seeds have this addicting lemony-bitter-numbing quality while cumin seeds are more pungent and warm (it's also possible my spices are ancient) while cauliflower cooked in this way is nut-ular and crisp and its flavours are echoed pleasingly in the chopped almonds.

The weekend happened, it was good in places and intense in others. Had people over spontaneously on Friday night to farewell some lovely but impermanent Swedes that we'd become friends with, on Saturday Tim and I had a necessary coffee at Customs and exercised our democratic right to vote; later in the day we gathered with the sort of people you need round when the outcome of lots of people exercising said right unfolds. The night became the morning but somehow we had the energy to plough on with weekend-y activities, buying vegetables and having cider with Kate and one of us witnessing a much needed win from the Wellington Phoenix (clue: it was Tim) all finishing up by making the meal that I'm presenting to you now.  

Another story, one that you might've heard already: I've been nominated for the Concrete Playground Blogger Awards in the Food and Beverage Category. If you want to read my nervous thoughts on that, then read the blog post before this one, but basically - and blatantly - I'd love you to vote for me. It would seriously be very cool and important to me and wonderful and good. To do this, Click Here and look for HungryandFrozen and then click the "like" underneath it. My gratitude could fill several dozen generously-legged palazzo pants jumpsuits.
Title via: I've read sneering things about her, I've read hyperbolic things about her, but when Arular was released it was one of the most exciting albums ever to interest my ears and I've been into M.I.A's music ever since. Sunshowers from that album is where today's title gets itself from. 
Music lately:

Over at The Corner there's a two-part post on favourite Flying Nun songs (Flying Nun being an important New Zealand record label) which not only presented me with some brilliant writing but also plenty of unheard new-old goodness to listen to. Including Garageland's Struck.

The Marvelettes, Mr Postman; I love how chilled and restrained and yet disciplined and sharp the singing is on this track.
Next time: Whatever it is, I haven't made it yet. It could be another practical dinner, it could be a link to a video of "frowning girl adjusts pantyhose in public: The remix!" which could possibly do considerably more for my hopes to write a cookbook than actually working on developing recipes and so on.