Friday Night Indian Potatoes

Some of you have returned to work, some of you never left, and some are still working from home. Despite the changing nature of work and the uncertainties that plague our lives, Friday night is knock off night, a call for simple food, perhaps fish and chips from the local take away, or the equivalent version cooked at home. I’ve always struggled with chip cooking, but can recommend these Indian fried potatoes as a quick and tasty substitute. These are irresistible on their own. Make a big pile and forget about the fish.

Indian style fried potatoes with 5 seeds. This recipe serves 3 as a snack or a side. Double the ingredients for a decent size, they will all be eaten in a flash, I promise.

  • 500 gr potatoes. I used Desiree potatoes today.
  • 3 Tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 2 teaspoons panch phoran, ( a blend of 5 whole seeds including cumin, fennel, mustard, nigella and fenugreek seeds)
  • 3/4 teaspoons turmeric powder
  • salt to taste
  • dried chilli flakes to taste
  • a handful of chopped fresh coriander

Method

Peel the potatoes and cut into chunks. Cook in boiling salted water until just done.

Place the oil and seeds in a medium non stick frying pan and fry over a low heat for a minute or so, then add the turmeric, chilli and salt. Stir about, the add the potatoes, gently turning them so that they are coated in the spices. Cook over a low heat for a few minutes, turning gently, then turn up the heat so that they form a nice golden brown crust on both sides. when done to your satisfaction, serve, garnished with chopped coriander.

Note- if you don’t have panch phoron on hand, raid the seeds in your spice cupboard and create your own blend.

Recipe adapted from Indian Food made Easy, Anjum Anand. 2007 a very handy collection.

Best Prawn Curry from Goa

I’m always in search of a better prawn curry than the one I made last time, but the search is over, for a while at least. I’ve made many a good prawn curry along the way, Prawn Jingha Masala, various Keralan prawn curries with coconut milk and fresh curry leaves, prawn Malabar and north Indian masalas, and have finally settled on Prawn Balchao, a prawn curry from Goa. The combination of spice and vinegar makes this gravy really appealing on a cold night. The recipe is relatively simple. Once you’ve made the paste, the rest follows within minutes. During lockdown times, I’ve used frozen prawn cutlets ( large Australian prawns that have been pre-shelled and frozen on board fishing trawlers) and now keep a supply stashed in the freezer especially for this curry.

Prawn Balchao for 2-4 or more with other dishes.

The spice paste

  • 8g ginger, peeled
  • 15 g garlic, peeled
  • 5 dried mild red chillies
  • 2 cloves
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 1 teaspoon cumin seeds
  • 1/2 tablespoon brown mustard seeds
  • 1/2 teaspoon turmeric

The curry

  • 2 1/2 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 small onion, peeled, finely chopped
  • 3 tomatoes, finely chopped ( or use canned tomatoes with only a tiny part of the juice- about 3/4 cup)
  • 1 green chilli, left whole
  • 3-4 tablespoons malt or red wine vinegar
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • salt to taste
  • 300 g raw prawn meat ( this is the shelled weight)

Make a paste of the ginger, red chillies, and all the spices. I find a large mortar and pestle is the best tool for this job. You can produce a fine paste with a couple of minutes of banging and grinding. A food processor is too large for a paste this small. Add a little water to the paste towards the end to achieve a fine texture.

Heat the oil in a large non stick wok and fry the onion gently until golden. Add the tomatoes and green chilli and fry for about 10-12 minutes over a moderate heat until the mixture becomes a deep red colour. Add a splash of water if the pan becomes dry.

Add the spice paste and fry for 5 minutes until the oil separates. Add the vinegar, sugar and salt. Cook another minute and taste for a balance of flavours. adjust the salt if needed. Add the prawns and cook for 2 minutes or until cooked through. At this point, if the curry is too dry, you can loosen it with water, or cream. The latter additions are not so authentic, but I like a wet gravy in this curry and so recommend loosening the mixture.

Serve with rice and other lovely sides, with some papadum or naan.

Recipe adapted from Indian Food Made Easy, Anjum Anand. 2007. A very handy little book.

Varkala girls by the sea, memories of Kerala.

Is Your Mother Sweet or Savoury?

Mothers’s Day, La Festa Della Madre, always presents a few dilemmas. To celebrate or not, to give gifts or not. The commercialisation of the day is viewed with suspicion in my family, however for grandmothers and great -grandmothers, this day often has more significance. In the past, we’ve enjoyed small family gatherings with my mother, often in the dining room of the Lomond Hotel. A table for nine, set with white linen and fresh flowers, free bubbles for the ladies, followed by a simple three course meal, it was an easier way to get together than at Christmas. My mother always gave small gifts to her three daughters on this day, recognising that we are all mothers. This year, as my mother is in residential care, visits are not yet permitted. The facility management is adhering to very strict guidelines and has partially opened up: one designated family member may visit her once a week. To err on the side of caution makes sense, given that the elderly are so susceptible to the devastating effects of this plague. And as for my immediate family, none of us are planning to break the gathering rules. I’ll miss her today, but she does enjoy a long phone chat.

Crostata di albicocche

My biggest dilemma today is this- sweet versus savoury for Mother’s day? I’ve gone with both. For my daughter, a mother of three daughters and two leggy whippets, a crostata filled with apricot jam, Crostata di Albicocche, and for my caring son, a sourdough Panmarino bread filled with baked garlic and fresh rosemary. 

Panmarino sourdough with baked garlic. A small blowout in the centre of the salty crown. Sourdough, like life, is rarely perfect. ‘There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember.’

When it comes to sweet versus savoury, I think I’d choose the garlic- laced bread. I may need to steal a slice or two of that loaf. How would you choose, dear reader? 

 

 

In My Kitchen. May 2020.

There’s something very fishy going on in my kitchen. Yesterday, I finally braved the big scary world beyond the front gate and went in search of fresh fish at my favourite market, 30 kilometres away. The weather was chilly, with rain and sleet and a predicted top temperature of 10ºc. Swaddled in my trusty feather padded puffer jacket, mask and disposable gloves, Mr Tranquillo commented that I looked like a protagonist from a Scandi Noir series. The mask idea was a flop, making my glasses fog badly. The choice was clear, blindness or corona virus angst, fish or no fish as I eyed off the well fitting masks on the faces of other shoppers around me.

Next trip to the market, I’m wearing this to scare off other shoppers.

I had been yearning for fresh fish and had lost count of the days and weeks without it. Along the way, I had tried some very ordinary frozen stuff, and did visit the lacklustre display of pre-cut flaccid fish fillets at a nearby supermarket. I left empty handed. There’s something annoying going on during this health and economic crisis. Australian fishermen pay dearly for licences to fish our clean waters. Their life on the sea is arduous and often dangerous. But due to the closure of restaurants, much of our finer fish is frozen then exported overseas. Meanwhile, Australians are often reduced to buying sub- standard imported frozen products, often farmed or fished in questionable waters, while the major supermarkets offer mundane products, bought at a national level, bearing no relationship to the local seasonal offerings at all. If there’s one message in all this, is is support your local fishmonger. There aren’t many of them left. They are trained at selecting and purchasing, handling, gutting, boning, filleting, and selling local fish. There are no fishmongers employed by supermarkets and the choice is limited. Avoid frozen imported fish at all costs. You have no idea how it was fished, the working conditions of the fishermen, or the toxic state of the waters.

Crabs lying in wait- Linguine with chilli crab.

The Preston Market offers 6 fishmongers, small businesses that have continued to serve the public during throughout this lockdown period. One of my favourites is Nick the Fishmonger. The boss there knows exactly what his customers love and buys local fish early each morning at the wholesale market and then fillets them to order. Yesterday’s display drove me demented with desire. Each fishmonger has his/her own specialty and you get to know each one personally: the smiling Vietnamese lady on the corner, who has been there for the last thirty years, the ‘Aussie’ crew next door, who source local squid from nearby waters, the Greek guy around the corner who sources Mt Martha mussels. I came home with fresh blue swimmer crabs, flathead fillets, a kilo or more of squid, and some huge, frozen tiger prawns from South Australia. All these are now stashed in portion sizes in my freezer, though the crabs have been earmarked for today’s linguini, crab and chilli, while some of the flathead fillets and squid became yesterday’s fritto misto. I’m in heaven. It was worth the wait.

Fritto Misto. Portami in paradiso.

 In my kitchen, like many others, I’ve been doing more cooking than usual. Supplies have been delivered by guardian angels and if there’s one up side to this self isolation business, it has been the sharing of shopping trips. My daughter visited a well stocked Indian grocery two weeks ago. As she toured the shelves, she messaged photos to me: I felt like I was shopping alongside her. She returned with bags full of pulses and chickpeas, fresh spices and ghee. Another friend, Helen H, was heading down to Psarakos, a busy store a few suburbs away, a 30 minute drive. She returned with a giant wedge of Grana Padano parmigiano, big enough to see me out. My eldest son calls every two days and checks to see if we need basics from the supermarket. Fiona dropped off a bag of freshly gathered wild pine mushrooms. My granddaughter found a source of Baker’s flour, some passionfruit, and happily collects our wine order from Nillumbik Cellars, where they specialise in Sangiovese and Pinot Grigio from the King Valley. Thank you angels.

For all other activities In My Kitchen, I’ll let the pictures below do the talking. Thanks Sherry of Sherry’s Pickings for hosting this round up each month.

The last of the apple pick, Tome Beauty.
Walnut sourdough bread and Meredith goat cheese
Ricotta, orange and almond cake, Recipe on last month’s blog
Muttar paneer, recipe on last month’s blog
Pakora. recipe on last month’s blog

Muttar Paneer, My Favourite Curry

As promised, it’s curry recipe time. But first let me say a few words about that ubiquitous word ‘curry’. The word Curry is simply the anglicised form of the Tamil word kaṟi meaning ‘sauce’ or ‘relish for rice’. This makes sense as rice is central to all Indian meals, as it is in other parts of Asia, and the ‘curries’ are often presented in small bowls to add to your rice and not the other way around. If you order a large Thali in India, you will be offered unlimited rice along with little teacup sized scoops of spicy and bland accompaniments- perhaps some mild chickpeas flavoured with sour tamarind, a crunchy fried fingerling, some bland soupy dal, or a dry curry of spicy potato or cauliflower, along with some hot chutney and dahi (plain yoghurt). A good Indian curry recipe involves subtlety in spicing, variation in texture and balance. Some people associate the word curry with heat, but this is a misconception: there are more mildly spiced aromatic curries than hot versions. There are no prizes for choking on chilli, eyes weeping in pain. A good banquet of curries might include one hot dish such as a Madras or Vindaloo, alongside others that are medium or mildly spiced, with some wet and some dry dishes. 

Unfortunately, there’s no chance for a banquet here any time soon, given the restrictions on social gathering. So it’s down to one curry at a time in this household of two, made with care, and served with all the sides- basmati jeera rice, naan, chutney and dahi. We have time on our side.

 

Muttar Paneer ( peas and curd) Serves 4 or more as part of a banquet

This is a two part recipe. The first step involves making the curd (paneer) which can made the day before, or anytime up to 3 hours before you make the curry. The recipe for paneer, including photos of the process, follows this main recipe.

  • 4 Tables neutral flavoured oil, such as canola or a mixture of half oil and half ghee ( my preference for a richer sauce)
  • 250 gr paneer, cut into 2.5cm cubes
  • 6 or more cardamom pods, bruised
  • 1 onion, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp garlic puree*
  • 2 tsp ginger puree*
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 1/2 tsp turmeric
  • 1/2- 1 tsp chilli powder
  • 200 gr canned tomatoes or fresh tomatoes with skins removed, finely chopped.
  • 350 gr whey or water
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 125 gr frozen peas
  • 1/2 tsp garam masala
  • 2 Tblsp cream
  • 2 Tblsp chopped coriander leaves

Heat half the oil and ghee in a medium sized heavy based saucepan over medium heat. Add the paneer, sprinkling with a few pinches of turmeric if you wish. Cook till golden brown, turning gently.  Remove and drain.

Add the remaining oil to the same saucepan. Add the cardamom, stir about for a few seconds, then add the onion,and cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes, lowering the heat if need be, till soft. Add the garlic and ginger, and cook, stirring frequently for 2 more minutes or until the onion is soft and a pale golden colour.

Add the ground coriander, turmeric and chilli powder and stir for 1 minute. Then add the chopped tomatoes and their juice, and cook, stirring occasionally, for 4- 5 minutes. Add 2 tablespoons of whey, (or water if you’ve used a commercial paneer ) stirring frequently until the oil separates from the spice paste. Then add the rest of the liquid, and salt. Bring to the boil, the reduce the heat to low and simmer, uncovered, for 7-8 minutes.

Add the paneer and peas to simmer gently for 5 minutes. Stir in the garam masala and cream and remove from heat. Sprinkle with chopped fresh coriander if you happen to have some. Mint works well too.

Serve with rice, naan and thin yoghurt or raita.

* the best way to produce ginger puree is grating it on a fine microplane, while garlic puree is best made bashed in a mortar and pestle. If I’m making a few different curries, I start with this step and make a bulk lot of each. 

Paneer recipe

Making paneer is the one of the easiest and most satisfying things to do. Once you’ve made your own, you’ll never go back to those tough blocks sealed in plastic found in the fridges of Indian Delis. You will also be able to use the whey in your curry, so nothing is wasted. The whey keeps well for over a week and can be used in all sorts of curries and soups.

Ingredients for paneer to yield around 250 gr

  • 2 litres full cream milk
  • 3 tablespoons strained lemon juice

Boil the milk, making sure that it just reaches boiling point and doesn’t develop a skin or begin to froth. Stir occasionally while doing this. Turn off the heat, add the lemon juice and stir about until curds and whey separate. Leave it for 5 minutes, then tip into a muslin lined strainer over a bowl. The bowl will collect the whey. Wrap the curds tightly in the cloth, making a flattish shape, then place in the fridge on a plate with a heavy weight on top. Keep the whey and store in a bottle. The curd will be ready to use in 3 hours. Cut as required.

The pics below show the stages of paneer making. The whole process takes less than 10 minutes. The result is worth it.

The following chart gives an approximate guide of yield of paneer ( curd cheese) to milk. I used 1 litre of full cream milk for my most recent batch which produced 130 gr of paneer, enough for a large curry for two. The time before, my batch of 2 litres of milk produced a yield of 260 gr which is consistent, using full fat generic brand supermarket milk . UHT milk is not recommended. 

An approximate guide to yield of curd from milk. Use this chart to reduce or increase the recipe for paneer as required. Chart courtesy of Kurma Dasa. Who remembers cooking with Kurma?

For Maree Tink, who also enjoys making Muttar Paneer.

Anzac Day and Memorialisation

Anzac day always fills me with deep melancholy. It’s that annual combination of personal missing of my father, a WW2 Vet, autumn leaves falling, and that deeper sadness that comes from the stories and legends of the Australian/New Zealand experience in battle, particularly those relating to the soldiers who fought in the Great war, WW1. We can talk about personal sacrifice, the fallen, and repeat the usual psalms on this day but we can’t remember what we haven’t experienced. I don’t attend morning ceremonies on ANZAC day but I always spend time visiting small suburban and town war memorials whenever I’m travelling around the Australian countryside. After reading the list of names of the fallen, it becomes evident that in some country towns, a whole generation of related fathers, brothers, uncles, and cousins were removed from families. And when I think of these young men, I recall the history, again with deep sadness, of the calculated way they were used as colonial cannon fodder for a cause that was not their own- the fallen in the fields of France and Belgium, the slaughtered youth at Gallipoli. On this day, let’s also remember those who returned, the gas poisoned and shell shocked, the wounded, the legless and armless, those who could never love again, or be loved, those who lost their hearing, their sight, the mentally disturbed, the haunted, those with the shakes and post traumatic stress before that condition had a name, the men living out their remaining years in soulless suburbs or country towns, as life moved along often without them, forgotten by the governments of the day, their war medals or moth eaten slouch hat tucked in the back of an old wardrobe, the men whose names are not listed on the shrines of remembrance, and the sadness that they carried deep inside and tried so hard to forget.

And on this day, I often read the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

Dulce et Decorum Est

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame, all blind;He soon died;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—
Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin,
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.

Pakora, the Ultimate Snack

India has the most desirable array of street food and snacks. I love them all. Samosa, pakora, bhajii, bonda, aloo chat, and vada are just a few of the Indian treats whose names have become familiar to many Australians over the last 40 years. I enjoy going to the nearby Monday market ( or rather I did,  back in the pre-Covid  days when big junk markets were still operating ) just to visit the colourful Indian Sikh tent for a morning snack, usually a freshly made samosa, or even better, a plate of samosa chat, a plate brimming with hot chana masala, topped with a samosa, the pyramid draped with yoghurt, green and tamarind chutneys. Balancing the loaded paper plate while standing was always a fearful business. Samosa chat covers late breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea in one go. Most suburban Indian restaurants offer a few standard snacks as starters on their menus but there’s a catch here. Start with a few tempting aloo bhaji, samosa or pakora and there’s not much room for mains.

eggplant pakora, batter a mixture of besan and lentil flour, with green sauce.

Pakoras make the best afternoon tea or accompaniment to beer. I’m yet to meet someone who doesn’t love them. When I make pakoras, the wolves appear from nowhere. Lust and greed overcome good manners. Just have pity on the poor cook chained to the stove, making more on demand. If you are that cook, I advise you to keep a saucer of dipping sauce handy, so that you can eat as you go and not miss out.

the flour and spice for pakora before adding water.

Over the years, I’ve adapted my pakora batter recipe. In the 1980s, I used recipes by Charmaine Solomon and Jacki Passmore, my only Indian cookbooks at that time. Since then, my Indian collection has expanded, now numbering around 15 but who is counting. The variation on the pakora theme is enormous. Some recipes include a little self raising flour to the base of besan flour ( chick pea flour) providing more puff to the batter. Others add nigella seeds, ajwaiin seeds, garam masala, salt, sliced green chilli, chopped garlic, chilli powder. Everyone’s Indian grandmother has the most authentic recipe, I’m sure. I add a little rice flour to my mixture which gives the batter more crunch. Sometimes I play with a mixture of besan flour and very fine red lentil flour, especially when making onion bhaji, a close relative of the pakora. It’s easier to  just wing it with additions so long as you start with around one cup of besan flour in your mixing bowl. The following recipe is a good version.

Pakora Batter Recipe

  • 120 gr of besan flour ( or 100 gr besan plus 20 gr rice flour) 
  • 1 teaspoon ajwaiin seeds 
  • 1 teaspoon chilli powder
  • 2 teaspoons white vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix the ingredients in a bowl. Make a well in the centre and gradually add 275 ml of water to the batter while whisking. The batter should be thickish but loose enough to coat the back of the spoon and gently drip down. 

Heat some canola oil in a wok, or heavy based saucepan. Don’t skimp on the depth of the oil- your pakhoras need to be deep fried and must be covered. Test the heat of the oil by adding a little batter to see if it’s ready. Coat individual vegetable pieces, such as eggplant, potato onion rings, cauliflower or broccoli with the batter and deep fry until cooked through and dark golden in colour. If you are making mixed vegetable pakora, as shown in the picture below, chop 250 gr vegetables and mix through the batter before frying spoonfuls. My last combination included diced eggplant, finely shredded silverbeet ( chard) and thinly sliced and halved onion rings. 

Mixed pakora with green sauce.

Green Sauce Recipe

  • 25 gr mint leaves, chopped
  • 25 gr coriander leaves, chopped
  • 2 green chillies, chopped
  • 1 garlic chopped
  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 1 Tbls sugar
  • 1 teas salt
  • 125 g ( 1/2 cup) plain yoghurt

Place in a food processor and blend till smooth. Store in fridge for 30 minutes to allow the faavours to settle before use. Make the sauce before the pakora. If herbs are in short supply, serve with yoghurt or a commercial chutney, thinned down with yoghurt.  My kids like pakora dipped in soy sauce, totally inauthentic but still good.

eggplant pakora, batter a mixture of besan and lentil flour, with green sauce.

Notes.

The batter makes and excellent coating for deep fried, battered fish. I often add some turmeric if using with fish.

The recipes are based on two found in Spice Kitchen, Ragini Dey, 2013. 

A big loud applause to Melbourne’s Sikh Volunteers Australia, who make and deliver 650 meals each day to vulnerable people within the community. They are currently building a larger kitchen. They have a facebook page with details for donations and many happy photos. 

 

Indian Night to the Rescue

Unlike the residents of the nearest village who are offered a plethora of dining options during this period of social distancing and isolation, we have none. Down at that village seven kilometres away, every coffee shop, take-away, fine dining restaurant and catering business has published their menu online to tempt families, couples and the non cooking brigade, setting times for parcel pick ups, sourdough bread days, couple’s date night in, and more. They all seem to have adapted to the new normal, competing for the same disposable dollar. They appear to be doing well enough.

I’m not prepared to brave the queues or drive at night to pursue those options. The last time I went out, everyone was too close for comfort. There’s no rest for the lockdown wicked. I get quite cantankerous in the kitchen these days, especially if I’m the only one contributing to the decision making about meals. There’s trouble in paradise. It usually goes like this:

Me “What would you like for dinner?”

T  “Hmmm, what do you feel like?”

Me “No, I asked you first. I’m sick of thinking about food”

T  “Maybe a stir-fry?”

At which point I pour myself a glass of wine and turn on Netflix. A stir-fry is not the answer I was hoping for. It’s a recipe for disaster, usually resulting in some hodgepodge dish doused in a collection of pantry Chinese sauces and condiments, the plating resembling a dog’s dinner, with little thought given to ethnic origin or finesse.

I usually cook Italian food, which is second nature to me, but if I’m straying at all, I’ll choose between Indian, Lebanese, Turkish, and Greek cuisine. We’ve now resolved the problem with the advent of cuisine theme nights, where we both test new recipes from my wall of cookbooks. On Indian nights, which seem to be occurring rather frequently of late, we make one curry each, starting quite early to allow the curries to settle a bit before rewarming them for dinner. There’s usually enough leftover to stash in the fridge for another meal, given that most curries improve with age. We rate our new concoctions, and if they get the nod of approval, they’re scanned, then popped into a folder. Our Indian nights include dressing the table with Indian fabric and playing some romantic ghazals by that old crooner, Jagjit Singh. Who needs to dine out? It’s a fine solution for those who take self isolation seriously.

I hope to share our tried and true Indian recipes this week, in case you need some inspiration for some Indian take away made at home. Recipes will include two good versions of pakhora, muttar paneer, prawn curry, dhal, potato, pea and yoghurt curry, pumpkin curry, rajma and naan bread. Stay tuned.

eggplant pakhora with coriander and mint sauce.

Over the Hills and Far Away

Day 26.  Living in the hills on the periphery of Melbourne, it’s always fairly quiet around here. We don’t have neighbours within hearing distance, and the road isn’t close by. There’s one small general store, a primary school, a rural supplies store, a pub, bakery and a pizza place. Most of these are now closed or open on a limited basis. Time has come to a standstill. The nearby flight path is silent, the early morning workers’ cars are few and far between. The kitchen clock tics more loudly, evoking memories of dark, claustrophobic antique shops crammed with heavy wooden furniture, tapestries, Victoriana and mantelpiece clocks. The wooden beams creak overhead, expanding and contracting with the day’s heat; an annoying fly hums about, landing on my arm as I write. This deathly quiet seems like I’ve stepped back in time to another place in another century. On days like this, the black dog hovers too close for comfort.

It’s almost four weeks of self-isolation now and I can count the days of escape on one hand. Simple pleasures- a walk around an oval, a short drive to a nearby township to pick up a special order, or to drop something off from a distance, a long awaited postal delivery- have become the highlights of my month.

Driveway, mist over creek. Day 10

One of those outings occurred on Day 10. We left home early as the morning fog still hovered above the creek valley below our place. The drive took us through the hills that form part of our district and followed the steep descent to the township of Yarra Glen, suspended below the road in a pool of blinding light. Travelling along the fertile plains of the Yarra Valley to Coldstream, we passed by vineyards and strawberry farms, fields of dark leafed cabbage and paddocks of sheep and cattle. Our mission was to collect a few day old chickens from a hatchery, a necessary and essential trip, officer, in order to provide future laying hens for my small self- sufficient farm. It is a familiar landscape: I’ve been travelling through these same hills for forty years. Yet on this occasion, the landscape seemed to sing with extraordinary beauty. I discovered new vistas, old railway bridges and distant mountain ranges that I had ignored all these years. Less traffic, the cold, clean air of the morning, the silver sun rising through the glinting frost in the valley, I felt a rare euphoria, a joy that emanated from being immersed in nature.

Cabbages of Yarra Valley, Day 10

I made a resolution on Day 10, that when all this is over, I want to go on more picnics in the nearby hills and valleys. To be a part of this landscape while we still have it. To do what our ancestors did on their days off.  And when I’m more confident about the state of the world, perhaps I’ll take a longer drive to other beautiful landscapes and bush within Victoria, to visit this land with new eyes.

Orange, Ricotta and Almond cake.

If I knew you were coming I’d ‘ve baked a cake. Sometimes the strangest songs jump into my head for no particular reason. I like to think of them as song pop- ups. This cute but slightly annoying song, recorded by Eileen Barton in January 1950, must have been played often by my parents along the way, an earworm plant from childhood. There’s fat chance of any one coming here for at least another month if not longer. Despite isolation, or in spite of it perhaps, the cake baking continues once a week.

Ricotta, orange and almond cake. i cannot part with this lovely old chipped plate

Most of my cakes are flour free. After all those Hot Cross buns this Easter, I’m enjoying this subtle flavoured flourless cheese cake, with its evocative notes of orange, reminding me of Sicily. If you live in a two or three person household, small cakes of 18-20 cm in circumference are the best size to bake when no one is knocking at your door or dining at your table. This cake keeps well for a few days under a cake dome or lidded container in the cooler months, or in the fridge during summer. 

Torta Siciliana di Ricotta, Arancia e Mandorle.

Ingredients

  • 250 gr ricotta cheese, firm
  • 4 large eggs, separated
  • 1 tsp + Cointreau or other orange liqueur
  • 175 gr caster sugar
  • 220 gr almond meal
  • finely zested rind of 1 orange
  • 1 Tbles orange juice
  • flaked almonds for the top
  • icing sugar to dust.

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 160ºc. Grease and line a 20 cm springform cake tin.
  2. Beat together the ricotta, egg yolks, and sugar in a stand mixer, making sure the mixture is completely smooth. Add the liqueur and orange juice, stir through, then add the almond meal, mixing well by hand to incorporate.
  3. Beat the egg whites in a clean bowl till soft peaks form. Fold in a few tablespoons into the almond mixture to loosen it. Then gently fold in the remaining eggs whites.
  4. Spread into the prepared pan. Sprinkle the top with almond flakes. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean. 
  5. Cool then release onto a wire rack to cool completely. Dust with icing sugar.

Those insane lyrics from that song.

Well, well, well, look who’s here.
I haven’t seen you in many a year.
If I knew you were comin’ I’d ‘ve baked a cake,
baked a cake, baked a cake.
If I knew you were comin’ I’d ‘ve baked a cake.
How-ja do. How-ja do, How-ja do.

Had you dropped me a letter I’d ‘ve hired a band,
grandest band in the land.
Had you dropped me a letter I’d ‘ve hired a band
and spread the welcome mat for you.