A Break in the Weather

At last there’s a break in the weather, a cool snap with a little rain. Is it time to rejoice or was that last shower just another drizzle of hope? This summer and autumn have been hot and dry, pleasant weather if you’re by the seaside, but not so kind for those who love their gardens and farms. An omen of what’s to come? To date, we have had around 60 ml of rainfall over the last three months. The tanks and dams are low, the fruit trees are dropping their leaves too early: rabbits crawl up and over fences in search of something green to eat, starting with their favourite snack, the ring- barking of fruit trees before looking for small gaps in the well fenced vegetable patch. The figs look like hard little bullets and have given up the battle.

Midst our paddocks of desiccation, there are some welcome surprises. The quinces are fabulous this year, picked just in time before the birds got desperate. Such an old-fashioned and demanding fruit, I love the way they turn from hard golden knobbly lumps into the most exotic concoctions. How do you describe the flavour and colour of poached quince?

With the sound of the rain on the tin roof, my thoughts turn to food and preserves. Quince jelly, quince syrup, perhaps to use as an exotic base for gin, a torta of ricotta and quince cubes, quince ice cream, the syrup swirled through a softened tub of good vanilla ice cream, perhaps some Spanish membrillo.

Long thin eggplants have been fruiting for months. While not as useful as the fat varieties, they grow more abundantly in our micro-climate.

After chopping the eggplant for a Chinese dish, I noticed their resemblance to the cushions.

The Pink Lady apples are the star this year. We grow 13 varieties of apple, and each has its year. The crop has been well protected by netting, though the desperado cockatoos are beginning to notice. Picked and stored in the fridge, they are reasonable keepers.

With the change of season, I hope to return to my usual pattern of posting and cooking. There will be more recipes coming and anecdotes of one kind or another, simple stories about the beauty of life. As the saying goes, ‘I’ll keep you posted’.

 

 

Sweet Plums in Summer and an Old Tart Recipe

The orchard, summer’s sweet fulfillment, beckons each morning, before the heat sets in. With the passing of the month, more heavily laden boughs bend with the weight of fruits of the season. Long gone are the peaches, young berries and cherries of early summer: now is the time for slow maturing fruit, apples, pears, quinces, figs and plums. Today the ruby-red fleshed Satsuma plums announced their turn to be picked: not as sweet as the Mariposa plum of early January, but a close relative and a very good keeper.

satsuma plums

Picking fruit is a kind way to wake up. I ponder the efficacy of the netting, and the man who meticulously netted, as I reach in to gently press the fruit, testing for perfect ripeness. An abundant season thanks to good spring rain, purple plums press against each other, nudging siblings for space on the bough, beautiful cheeks full of dark juice. As the basket fills, recipes come to mind- sweets of all kinds and savoury concoctions too, jams to put down for rustic winter crostate, spicy Chinese sauces, and poached plums to eat with yoghurt or labne.

Picking plums in the cool of early morning

I’ve made this tart often, and in the past with pears, apricots and cherries. It’s a seasonal standby. The apricot version is my most popular recipe on this blog. I’ve never had much success with growing apricots and so that version is a rare treat. Commercial apricots are picked too soon and never seem to fully ripen, tasting wooden and sour. This plum version is colourful and not too sweet. When choosing plums, make sure that they are juicy, fully ripe and are red fleshed. I should stress that they are not poached beforehand, but gently pressed into the top of the almond frangipane batter before baking.

Torta di mandorle e prugne

Torta di Mandorle e Prugne con Amaretto. Italian Almond and Plum Cake with Amaretto.

Ingredients

  • 125 g softened unsalted butter
  • 150 g castor sugar
  • 4 eggs
  • 50 g plain flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 375 g finely ground almond meal
  • 2 Tablespoons Amaretto liqueur ( brandy works well enough here)
  • red fleshed plums, such as blood plums, fully ripe, enough to fill the tart
  • 25 g flaked almonds

Method

  1. Preheat oven to 170 FF. Grease a 25 cm loose bottom tin and line with baking paper.
  2. Cream butter and sugar in a stand mixing bowl, then add eggs one at a time and beat for 5 minutes until thick and pale. If the mixture curdles, throw in a little of the measured flour.
  3. Stir in the flour mixed with the baking powder, then fold in the almond meal, followed by the Amaretto. Pour into the prepared tin.
  4. Arrange halved plums over the top and lightly press down so they are partly submerged. Scatter the top with the flaked almonds.
  5. Bake for 45- 50 mins. Cool in tin. Gently un-mould.

    Torta di Mandorle e Prugne

In summer, this tart keeps well in a covered box in the fridge. I reheat the slices a little before serving.

Links to my my previous plum concoctions.

Poached plums with labne and nuts and seeds

Plum Clafoutis

Plum and Semolina Cream Tart

Rustic Italian Plum Cake

Chinese Plum Sauce

 

Waiting for Cherries. A different Clafoutis

One of the joys of Christmas, as far as our seasonal food calendar goes, is the arrival of fresh cherries in abundance. The season usually peaks in mid to late December but this year they are appearing more slowly, thanks to a very cold Spring. The plump, expensive boxes have hit the shelves, but I am still waiting for the big flush, when cherries appear in luscious piles on fruiterers’ tables, dark, plump and cheap, the Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailer cherries, to hang over ears or slurp out of the bag before reaching home, as well as a few kilos to preserve in Brandy, or to stud a Clafoutis.

A comforting little pudding.
A comforting little pudding.

In the meantime, this unusual recipe for Cherry Clafoutis caught my eye. It utilises dried sour cherries, reconstituted in Cognac. Or perhaps the Cognac caught my eye first, a Christmas life saver of a drink for those who feel a little stressed.

Preserved Cherry Clafoutis.

  • 150 ml pouring cream
  • 1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
  • 2 eggs
  • 85 gr caster sugar
  • 1 egg white
  • 25 gr ( 1/3 cup) plain flour, sifter
  • icing sugar to serve
  • clotted cream, or mascarpone whipped with cream, or just cream, to serve

Preserved Cherries

  • 60 gr dried cherries
  • 100 gr white sugar
  • 3 ml Cognac

For preserved cherries, combine dried cherries in a saucepan with sugar, Cognac and 150 ml water and cool on low heat for 7-8 minutes until liquid is syrupy. Watch that the liquid doesn’t turn to toffee.

Preheat oven to 180C. Heat cream and vanilla bean in a saucepan over medium heat, bring to boil, remove from heat and cool. Remove vanilla bean. Using an electric mixer, beat eggs and sugar until light and creamy. In a separate bowl, whisk egg white until soft peaks form, then add the cream mixture and fold to combine. add the flour and fold in, then slowly beat in the egg mixture.

Spoon cherries into a lightly buttered and sugared 6 cup ovenproof baking dish. Pour batter over cherries and bake for 10-15 minutes or until golden and cooked through. Serve immediately, dusted liberally with icing sugar and with cream.

The cherries are in hiding.
The cherries are in hiding.

This version of clafoutis is very light and more like a souffle in texture, so it is best to eat it straight from the oven, though I must mention that it is rather nice at 6.30 am, eaten straight from the fridge, which is the quiet hour when I like to write and eat leftovers. The recipe is also handy for all other seasons, and may suit the cherry- deprived in the Northern Hemisphere. Of course you can use fresh cherries or ones you preserved from last year.

close up of clafoutis
The heart of a clafoutis

**The recipe is from a Gourmet Traveller Annual Cookbook and is attributed to Peter Gilmour.

And now for a song plant/ear worm for the day. Just change the chorus from Sherry Baby to Cherry Baby when you make a classic cherry Clafoutis.

Quince and Almond Cake

We never ate quince at home when I was a child, nor did my mother make jam from quince, but I do remember tasting it when I was very young. That unusual sweet tang was firmly embedded in my food memory, like a little chip of sensual data, by my Aunt Edna. She was an excellent cook and often made quince jelly, one of the many jams that appeared at her banquet sized afternoon tea of scones and cakes. I didn’t understand the taste then, but I loved it. Now, I might describe it as ambrosial, ancient, and enticing.

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Poached quince in sugar syrup, with lemon peel and vanilla bean.

Years later, at the age of thirty to be precise, we moved to the country and I rediscovered that refined sweet flavour of Persia, Aphrodite and roses. The annual gathering of quinces from Norma’s orchard involved roaring down a rutted and overgrown dirt track in her old Subaru, with Poppy the dog on board, to the old fairyland quince grove beside the banks of the Diamond Creek. It was well hidden from human and bird predators. The trunks were grey and lime with lichen, the neglected trees gnarled and contorted, but they still cropped yearly. They were planted by the creek banks in the 1890s when the area around St Andrews was largely a fruit-growing district. That secret quince grove disappeared in the devastating bushfires of 2009.

Quince and Almond cake in Autumn light.

In the old days, the orchards bordering the Diamond Creek relied on its regular flow through this valley from its source in the Kinglake hills to the north. Records were maintained by orchardists up until the 1960s. As land holders turned away from agriculture, records of the Diamond Creek’s flow became impressionistic, but most locals will tell you that the volume has decreased significantly over the last 25 years, and in summer, the creek invariably dries up. Coincidentally, Coca Cola/ Amatil began buying up most of the underground water in the aquifer at Kinglake from the 1990s onwards, effectively dehydrating the communities further downstream. Kinglake water is bought for a song and is used to bottle Mount Franklin water. Thoughtless consumers drink pure water from plastic bottles, when they have a very good source of it in their own tap, while a beautiful local creek, a tributary of the Yarra, is left with an irregular flow, not to mention the ramifications for wild life, further desiccation of the bush, increase in bushfire hazard and the problem of plastic.

Just for the colour

Returning to the glories of quince, I am happy to see that quinces are now widely available in markets, appearing from April onwards.  My 5-year-old Smyrna quince tree produces well, but wild birds and summer water shortage makes for a small harvest. I make a few batches of poached quinces each season, which last quite well under poaching liquid in the fridge. I take out slices to make various cakes and desserts, then boil up the poaching syrup, reducing it to a jelly glaze to use as a sauce or jam.

The Original Recipe

  • 250 g butter, at room temperature
  •  1 ¼ cups caster sugar
  •  1 teaspoon finely grated lemon rind
  •  3 eggs
  • ½ cup almond meal
  • ¼ cup flaked almonds
  • ¾cup milk
  •  2 ¼ cups self-raising flour, sifted
  • 2 large pre- poached quinces, drained and cut into slices, liquid reserved.
Quince cake to share. Enough for 10.
  1. Preheat oven to 180°C or 160°C fan forced. Grease base and sides of a 22 cm springform pan and line with baking paper.

  2. Use an electric mixer with a paddle attachment to beat butter, sugar and lemon rind in a bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Stir in almond meal and flaked almonds. Then stir in milk and flour, alternating.  Spoon 2/3 of batter into prepared pan. Top with half of quince. Top with remaining batter. Top with remaining quince. Bake for 1 hr 20 mins or until a skewer inserted in centre comes out clean. Stand in pan for 5 mins, then remove sides of pan.  You may need to cover the cake with tinfoil after an hour if the top is already brown.

    Serve cake warm or at room temperature with cream and reduced, thickened quince syrup or more simply with sifted icing sugar.

    The Adapted Recipe. I didn’t like the sound of flaked almonds inside the batter but I still wanted a strong almond taste. I changed the ratio of almond meal to flour and removed the flaked almonds altogether. My version used 1 cup of almond meal to 1 and 3/4 cups of SR flour and a scant teaspoon of baking powder. Try either version. Maybe add a little slurp of Amaretto or a drop of almond essence. I also glazed the cake with some of the reduced hot syrup.

 

Fresh Fruit Charlotte, Lorenza de’ Medici’s Special Cake.

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Throughout the nineties, which seems like yesterday, I was in love with Lorenza de’ Medici. It wasn’t so much her recipes that inspired me: I wanted to live in her house! I acquired all of her cookbooks at great expense and learnt Italian, a necessary step if I were to become the new proprietress of Badia a Coltibuono. It was a wonderful fantasy. One of the desserts I made during that era came from her glossy coffee table book ‘The Renaissance of Italian Cooking’. I had completely forgotten about this sweet until I recently found the book again at a second-hand store. ( all my cookbooks were lost in 2009 ). The original  price was  $49.00 but this week’s price was $3.99.  I love people who discard their cookbooks, I have re-filled my shelves with cheap treasure.  I made my special dessert again this Sunday and relived all my Italian fantasies. It is back on the top of my favourite dolce list.Image

Charlotta Di Frutta

For the Short pastry.

  • 350 g plain flour
  • 2 egg yolks
  • 125 g sugar
  • 225 g butter
  • pinch of  salt

For the filling

  • 1 orange
  • 300 g blood plums
  • 1 kg apples
  • 225 g sugar
  • grated peel of 1 lemon
  • 2 Tbsp Marsala
  • 3 cloves
  • 1 vanilla pod ( optional)Image

Method

  1. Prepare the short crust pastry. Place the dry ingredients in the food processor, add the butter, process, then the egg yolks, until mixed and formed into a ball. ( you can do this by hand if you prefer). Roll or press into a flat slab, wrap in cling wrap and let rest in the fridge for an hour or so.
  2. Meanwhile, make the filling. Grate the orange peel and reserve. Peel the orange, removing any pith, and divide into segments. Peel the plums and apples and cut into pieces. Cook the fruit together with the sugar, lemon and orange peel, Marsala, cloves and vanilla pod for 20 minutes, uncovered, over low heat.
  3. Butter and flour a 25 cm springform pan. Roll out two-thirds of the pastry to line the base and sides of the pan. Fill with the cooled cooked fruit and cover with the remaining pastry, rolled out thinly. Cook in a preheated oven at 180 degrees c /350 f for 45 minutes. Let cool before removing from the pan. Dust with icing sugar,and serve at room temperature with cream Serves 8-10.

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Note: this pastry is VERY short, requiring some patching do be done here and there. Despite this frustration, it is worth the effort and will still taste and look lovely.

This post is for Marcel, the boy who appreciates good food!