26 January 2014

they're probably drinking coffee, and smoking big cigars

Some late nights, some perfectly nice food that I ate too fast to photograph or just didn't care to, a couple of evenings where I didn't feel well, some nights where I was brain-tired from work, lots of very nondescript things like that are the reason I haven't blogged in a while. I really wanted to! So badly! If only I could freeze time for a bit so I could get everything done that I need to, then pick up where I left off. But then I'd probably end up making, say, 9pm on a Thursday or 6.30am on a Monday morning last for years, and then no-one would get anything done while I end up all Dorian Grey or something, so it's probably good that I don't have this power (this power that's so improbable that I don't even know why I'm worrying about it in the first place.)

Now that I've torn myself away from repeatedly watching the Beyonce videos that I'd promised myself I'd danced to once I finish this post, I probably oughta try make it good. Like a snake eating its own tail but instagramming the process and taking notes on the taste, I do love blogging so much even though it seems like I never have enough time and energy for it. (I don't actually know if that allegory quite quite works but I cracked myself up when I thought about it, so.) So: the food. I had a dream the other night about caramel slice with coffee in it, and unlike many of my better dreams, I had a good chance of making this one true.

It tastes excellent, but I mean, it's low-key stuff. This really is just the same caramel slice that it ever was - biscuit base, condensed milk filling - with some instant coffee added to it. I mixed the base ingredients together in the tin I was baking them in. I sort of burnt the condensed milk. I wasn't even awake when I thought the recipe up. And yet - so delicious. With that in mind, you can definitely achieve it too.

coffee caramel slice

Did I invent this recipe? In my dreams...

1 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar (pack it in, y'know?)
125g melted butter
1 tin condensed milk (if you can, look for the stuff that just has milk and sugar in the ingredients, not milk, sugar, and water) 
2 tablespoons golden syrup
50g more butter
2 tablespoons of instant coffee (espresso style gives the best flavour)
1/2 cup white chocolate buttons or similar

Set your oven to 180 C/350 F. Mix together the flour, melted butter, and brown sugar and once it comes together in a kind of crumbly, damp, sandy way, press it into the base of a baking tin, the sort you might make brownies in - about 25cm square, or thereabouts. Bake it for fifteen minutes. 

Once the base is out of the oven, heat the condensed milk, golden syrup, 60g butter and coffee powder together in a pan until it's bubbling and thick - stir it lots as it heats to prevent it sticking and burning, and also remove it from the heat as soon as it bubbles. Spread it evenly across the biscuit base, and refrigerate for an hour or two. Melt the white chocolate and drizzle it over the top, refrigerate again till it's set, and then cut into squares. Or whatever shape you like, don't let me hold you back from your star-shaped caramel slice fantasies. 

Of course caramel is wonderful on its own. But instant coffee powder - so flavourless in a cup with hot water! - blasts it with smoky caffeinated depth, making it just a little more fascinating than regular caramel already is. You still get the depth of almost-burnt sugar and the rich butteriness of uh, the butter, but it has a pleasing aggressive roasted and slightly bitter undertone. I'd like to add that until about five years ago instant coffee was all I even made myself at home if I wanted a coffee, so I'm not wanting to sound judgey. It's just that these days the coffee I drink makes instant taste sort of watery and bleak in comparison. But I give instant espresso powder a gold star for how great it is in flavouring baking. Particularly this sticky candy-sweet confection, full of friendly sugar granules that just can't wait to make friends with your teeth.

I don't have any particularly life-changing news to report to you from the time when I last blogged till now, but I am excited about one thing: my friend Tash has opened a second branch of her Holland Road Yarn Company right in town (Wellington right-in-town that is, apologies if you don't live here) and it's so lovely and full of beautiful yarn and I already have two new projects lined up to knit and I can occupy myself for a good, oh, twenty minutes by just doing laps of the shop and patting the balls of wool and deciding which ones are my favourite colours.

Oh and I got my sideburns shaved off, having hyped it up to many people beforehand as some kind of "Laura's summer of rebellious hair and expressing one's self through stuff" thing, and it turned out so ridiculously subtle and imperceptible that I'm a little red-faced. And now there's slightly more of my face to get red.

What's that? Just playing the world's smallest violin for the world's smallest buzzcut. (Also: I never understood that "world's smallest violin" joke until very recently, but it was used at least once in Baby-sitters Club books so I always liked to imagine I could just drop it casually into conversation like I knew what I was talking about. I also feel this way about the phrases "false economy" and "load-bearing wall".) (Oh and I like my haircut.)

title from: Johnny Cash, Folsom Prison Blues. Voice like thunder, face like thunder, legs like thunder, oh wait sorry I'm describing thunder by mistake. Uh, but for real I love this song and Johnny Cash and his deep voice. 
music lately:

Haim, The Wire. Yes. I, too, adore this song.

Laura Marling, Master Hunter. Aggressively dreamy.

Uzo Aduba, By My Side. This wonderful actor from Orange Is The New Black, well she was also on Broadway in Godspell, being incredible while singing this sad, weird song.  
next time: I won't make you wait so long. I'm pretty sure I say this a lot, to be fair. But I always mean it!

12 January 2014

and after that, we can ketchup like tomato

Nothing makes me feel like I'm smugly going to avoid scurvy (she says, having only eaten pizza, Nerds, and beer all day) than eating a vegetable one time. Despite my wayward ways, I do actually love vegetables not simply because they keep me more or less alive, but because they're delicious and abundant and almost all of them taste incredible when they have heat applied to them followed by lots of olive oil. 

I'm one week in back at work, and without casting aspersions on my work ethic (why cast aspersions when you can be frank: my work ethic is usually in the category of "reluctant yet non-existent, at best") it should be obvious enough that I'd much rather be on holiday. Who among us can say, etc etc. However, as with the chocolate brownies last week, I'm doing my best to improve upon last year's trend of bleak lunches, month in and out. From days of pot noodles, to seemingly endless bowls of plain couscous with butter and salt, to microwaved cheese sandwich (we're not allowed a toaster in the work kitchen. Oh, I know) I've decided I deserve better. By "better" I guess I mean "not having scurvy" but it's all part of life's rich tapestry, or something. 

Simple though the concept is, I'm not always good at remembering to make a large enough dinner to allow for lunch leftovers the following day. That's where this Ottolenghi recipe for Mejadra, from his book Jerusalem, is useful - it uses such unstressfully-priced ingredients as lentils, rice, and onions, it's all cooked in one pan, and it makes a metric butt-ton. I hear you, that those ingredients aren't the first to spring to mind as examples of "whoa, alluring", but there's something in the crunchy-crisp fried onions, and the spices which find their way into the earthy lentils and rice, that is really rather wonderful.  

I'm just going to link to Ottolenghi's recipe for Mejadra rather than write it out in full, because...oh, I'm very lazy. That's it, really. I told you my work ethic was found wanting.

I shall, however, heroically type out another Ottolenghi recipe that I made to go with the Mejadra - this is properly simple, both of ingredients list and execution, and while it doesn't sound like much it's super excellent. Fried slices of tomato, bursting at the seams with sweet ripeness, a little garlic and chili for, well, the flavour of garlic and chili, and plenty of soft, buttery olive oil...when we have tomatoes at such peak being-in-season-ness, there's not a lot that needs to be done to them. When they're at their most prolific, I kinda like to eat them like apples. For now, this fast recipe can help bolster up anything from toast, to scrambled eggs, to...to rice and lentils and onions.

fried tomatoes with garlic

from Yotam Ottolenghi's book Jerusalem.

three garlic cloves, crushed
1/2 a small hot chilli, finely sliced (I just used some sriracha as I was lacking a small hot chilli, or indeed a chilli of any size)
two tablespoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
three large, ripe, firm tomatoes
two tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Mix the garlic, chilli, and parsley together in a small bowl, and set aside. Top and tail the tomatoes and slice thickly vertically - about 1.5cm thick, but like, whatever. Heat the olive oil in a pan and then fry the tomato slices, turning over after a minute or two. I used an enamel roasting dish that can be used on a stove top, but I suppose it's better the more surface area you have. It's just that my saucepan was being used for the Mejadra, and...enamel is cute. Add the garlic mixture, fry a little longer, and then serve. 

It's the sort of thing that you could - and in fact probably already have - come up with yourself quite easily, but nevertheless, sometimes it's pleasingly comforting to be told what to do when cooking.  

And straightforward as it is, this recipe is pretty spectacular. All sweet and spicy and rich, yet very simple and plain and unfancy.

And very fitting on a table full of potluck brunch. I'm trying something called luxterity (luxe + austerity) this year, where there's more care with spending (necessarily so) but in as elegant/dramatic/sybaritic a manner as we can manage (also necessarily so, because I like those things.) Having friends over for brunch saves a lot of money, is super fun, and there's nothing like an air of "pants are barely required because I'm in my own damn house" to add a frisson to your morning repast.

That's about it, really. This week has been very long yet very fast. Full of hangings-out (out-hangings?) and knitting (a hat) and reading (The Character of Rain/Amelie Nothomb; Are You My Mother?/Alison Bechdel) and watching (Pretty Little Liars and Practical Magic and all the new Beyonce videos again and again) and eating (endless Mejadra - that recipe really makes a lot; plus as many seasonal berries as I can find) and small but joyful things like that.

Also, I got a new beanie that I adore.

This isn't going to make my knitted hat any less fun of a project, for one thing, I intend to put a pom pom on top of that one. Wellington's weather has been monumentally horrible lately, so weird as it sounds to be thinking about warm hats in the middle of summer, that's what we're dealing with. I couldn't care less. As long as tomatoes continue being cheap for a while longer...so if nothing else, I can pre-load on vitamins to cover me during my next inevitable stretch of candy and sodium chloride.
title from:  Mariah Carey, More Than Just Friends. Even when it's not the mid-nineties any more, Mariah still rules my heart and ears. 
music lately

City Oh Sigh, Still Let Me In. Dreamy, too dreamy.

Joan Jett, Roadrunner. The original by the Modern Lovers is one of my very, very favourite songs. But hurrah for good covers, like this boisterous one by the babein' Jett.
next time: I may have a hat that says "witch" but I don't know everything. You'll find out when I do.

5 January 2014

it's a new dawn, it's a new day

I am back! With some really ordinary brownies. I did look thoughtfully into the middle distance for a while over the idea of making something that really said "it's a new year!" in a jazz-handsy kind of way, but I didn't really have it in me, and also wanted brownies. In the same way that every person is the lead character in their own story that they're living - if that makes sense? - January is still just another month that happens to have danced around to the front. I guess what I'm saying is...brownies! They're not surprising, but they are excellent.

That said, I enjoyed having the opportunity to reflect upon 2013 and think about what I want to achieve in 2014 (besides just being like "whoaaaaa it's 2014 the movie Practical Magic is sixteen years old") and to gather together my intentions and so on. Without loading too much pressure on myself, since no-one needs that. More just things like...I want to pay attention to the phases of the moon, and read even more books written by women this year, and cook more proactively than reactively, and learn lots of new words and their meanings...and on a more specific level, I would also like this year to bring Lorde-levels of spectacular fame and success for my cookbook and me, for my wedding at the end of June to be fun and not financially whimper-making, and - sigh - to be way tidier. So, a little bit of pressure, I guess.

Despite my complete underselling of these brownies (great food blogging, Laura) they are of course delicious and are going to help me beat the back-to-school blues when I take them for lunch with me to work every day. This is something I've done before, but never quite sustain it for very long - hopefully this year I can be more (as I said above) proactive rather than reactive in the kitchen.

What better way to start the year than under the velvety influence of my queen Nigella Lawson, whose cookbook Kitchen is where this recipe comes from. She charmingly calls them Everyday Brownies, which, given that the 75g cocoa she specifies is nearly a cupful, says a lot about the quality of her days. But like all brownies should be, they are reassuringly easy to make, taste brilliant, keep for ages, and will probably help embiggen your day somewhat should you be eating them on your lunch break too.

Everyday Brownies 

(or just Brownies, for the rest of us) (I know, I'm going on like she's living at the level of Marie Antoinette, it's just 75g cocoa really is a lot.) (Though to be fair her other brownie recipe has 300g chocolate and six eggs so comparatively, this is rather austere.) (I'll stop talking now.)

From Nigella Lawson's book Kitchen.

150g unsalted butter
300g brown sugar
75g cocoa powder, sifted
150g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
approx 150g milk chocolate, chopped into small chunks (or similar - whatever!) 

Preheat the oven to 190C, and line a 25cmx25cm (or thereabouts) baking dish with baking paper.

Melt the butter, and stir in the sugar. Sift in the cocoa powder, flour, baking soda and salt - cocoa tends to be lumpy, and baking soda is no fun to get a mouthful of, so sifting really is useful here.  Add the eggs, vanilla, and chocolate, then stir, and scrape into your baking tin and bake for approximately 20-25 minutes. It depends on what you're into,  but brownies tend to be better when they're a bit undercooked, so don't worry if everything's wobbly on top when you take it out of the oven.   

These are wonderful - unstressful to make, perfuming the house delightfully, and achieving that perfect balance between the crisp exterior and the barely-contained mouth-rush of satiny chocolate batter within. I used some white chocolate buttons and chunks of Whittakers milk chocolate which made for a caramelly, melting contrast to the stridenly cocoa-y brownie around it. But use what you have - chocolate chips, dark chocolate, anything. These are such good, dependable, quietly lovely brownies that damn it, they really should be for every day. Thanks, Nigella (not for these brownies, I just wanted to thank her for existing.)

A cat deigned to have a selfie with me! (The Laura Vincent Story.)

I hope that the 13 changing to a 14 has seen good times for you all. I had a really nice xmas at home with my family (including - one of whom is pictured above - the two truculent cats who eventually acknowledged my presence after an enormous loss of dignity on my behalf), and read, and knitted, and that was about it really. Then, camping. I've been camping at this one place with my family since I was six months old (am still about as useful at helping to put up the tents now as I was back then) and it was a joy to be there again for a few days. A freezing, rained-upon, mosquito-bitten joy. I did, however, manage to read The Luminaries in 48 hours, and it was worth every last mosquito bite to be able to do that.

New Zealand's natural landscape normally leaves me pretty blank and disinterested, but this place is so tightly knitted and purled into my life that it seems like the most beautiful land on earth.

But, it's nice to be back here nestling back into this blog. I plan to resurrect my I Should Tell You interviews, which fell by the wayside as I worked on launching my cookbook, and of course there's my aim to be mondo-successful in a low-key, unpressurised kind of way. I got so many messages around the 25th of December from people telling me that they'd given my cookbook as a present, that they'd received it, or that they were making recipes from it - every single time I read one of the messages it made my little heart wiggle with happiness. So it may be just another day of just another month, but I'm looking forward to making every second of it as excellent as possible. (Even the bits that aren't my brownie-filled lunch break when I'm back at work next week.)

Oh! One more thing: I've had fun contributing to Radio New Zealand's Summer Nights programme. I completely love public speaking, so it was super cool to be broadcasting live to air on Monday when I was last there - if you want to listen to them  there are audios available at Radio New Zealand's website. Presuming you've made it to here while reading this, it's not implausible that you could handle more?
title from: Nina Simone, Feeling Good. While up at home I saw her performance at Montreux in 1976 played on TV, she was sublime. I love her so much.
music lately:

St Vincent, Cheerleader. Annie Clark of St Vincent is such a dreamboat and I love how this song is so stormy and dreamy. Also, rather cool name she's chosen to perform under, hey?

Speaking of dreamy, I danced to Beyonce's euphoric song XO on New Year's Eve and it was...um. Dreamy. Guess I should've put "diversity of adjectives" on my xmas wish list.
next time: no idea but I've done the groceries so it will be more than just an instagram of marmite on toast or a handful of chocolate buttons. Promise.