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Rocket, beetroot and goat-cheese salad

I first made a version of this salad on Christmas Day because the colours of the red beet, white cheese and green rocket were just what I was looking for on a Christmas table. I also wanted something a little sharp to cut through the otherwise heavy holiday fare.

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Pavlova is my secret weapon. No, honestly. For anyone who has never made it, it might look really difficult. In actual fact, it’s about seven minutes of prep, into the oven, and then two minutes slapping on whipped cream and fruit before it’s served. Pavlova can make a pretty average dinner look like you’ve ‘really tried’.

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Zucchini, lemon and barley risotto

I’m a big fan of barley and a friend recently made me the most amazing lemon barley risotto. It was great, but really heavy. I thought I’d experiment with a mixture of short grain risotto rice and barley to see if I could achieve something a bit lighter, but retain the chewy texture of the pearl barley. I was pretty pleased with the result, so here it is.

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Plain scones

I based this recipe on one that my mother copied out of a catering magazine several decades ago. (She was waiting for a Chinese take-away order at the time.) The magazine called them Park Hyatt Scones. We assume that it was from one of the Australian Park Hyatt hotels, but have never known for sure.

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Fried polenta with tomato sauce

Ground corn is the most amazing ingredient, yet I persist in forgetting about it for months, even years, at a time. Given that this grain is a staple for much of the world, I really don’t understand why I don’t make mielie-meal, sudza, grits or polenta more often.  Move over pasta for the quick fix meal of choice.

The stodgy yet crispy combination of fried polenta makes a satisfying base for most any lunch during the winter period.  What makes this combination even more perfect is that 1) it uses left-overs, 2) everything that is not left-over is probably in your pantry already, 3) it takes about 10 minutes to prepare.

If you leave out the parmesan, fried polenta makes an awesome breakfast slathered with butter and maple syrup.

Fried polenta

  • 100 grams polenta
  • 1/2 cup grated parmesan
  • salt
  • 500mls water

Tomato sauce

  • 400 gram tin of tomatoes
  • 1 red onion, chopped
  • 1 garlic clove, minced
  • handful of black olives, roughly chopped
  • 1 heaped tablespoon of capers
  • 1 teaspoon of dried oregano
  • olive oil or butter

Preferably you’ll have left over polenta from something else. If you don’t, bring the water and salt to boil in a saucepan, pour in the polenta and stir. Allow the mixture to boil for a few minutes until it thickens. (If you use a coarse polenta, it will take longer.) Stir in the parmesan. Pour the mixture into a square lasagna tray or lunch box so that the polenta is about 3cm deep. Set aside to cool. 

For the sauce, fry the onion and garlic in a little olive oil. Pour in the tomatoes and break them up with the back of a spoon. Add the oregano and bring to a simmer.

While the sauce simmers, slice the polenta into thin wedges. Melt a little oil or butter in a pan and fry each slice for a few minutes on each side until golden brown on the edges.

Stir in the olives and capers into the sauce a few minutes before serving, poured over slices of fried polenta.

Banana sponge

A few years ago, my mother inherited my grandmother’s 9-inch sandwich cake tins. My grandmother had in-turn inherited the tins from her mother-in-law.  These cake pans have been making family birthday cakes for probably close to 100 years. They’re thin steel, not fancy, but there is something very special about them. In fact, the banana sponge that I invented yesterday turned out so amazingly well that I suspect that four generations of baking experience must have mystically infused the metal.  I’ll be intrigued to know if this recipe turns out equally beautiful cakes without the Hudson cake tins.

The recipe was something of an accident – which I suspect is often the case with many banana cake recipes.  My dad – the prime banana eater in my parent’s house – was flying to a conference in New Zealand. On heading out the door he called: “You’ll have to bake a banana bread as I won’t be around to eat all these.”  With morning and then afternoon tea visitors expected and only a scraping of thick cream in the fridge, we had every excuse to take his advice. The recipe is mostly Joy of Cooking – but uses different flour, sugar, yogurt and filling – which I say makes this a different cake.

Banana sponge

  • 5 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 cup caster sugar
  • 1/2 cup soft brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup butter at room temperature
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup mashed ripe banana
  • a scraping of vanilla pod
  • 1/4 cup plain yogurt

To serve:

  • 1/2 cup extra thick double cream (or whipped cream)
  • 1 ripe banana sliced
  • icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C. Line the base with baking paper and grease two 9-inch round cake pans.

Sift together the flour and baking powder and set aside. Cream the butter and slowly add the caster sugar, followed by the brown sugar.  Beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at at time and beat to combine.  In a separate bowl, mix the banana, vanilla and yogurt  Gently fold the flour into the butter mixture in about three parts, alternating with the banana mixture.  Divide the mix between the two pans and bake for 30 minutes.

Remove from the oven and allow to cool completely.  Once cool, turn the base cake upside down and spread the facing side with thick cream, followed by the sliced banana. Invert the second cake and place this on top of the banana. Dust the top with icing sugar.

Banana cream sponge

Chocolate-chip oatmeal cookies

This is my favourite cookie recipe. It’s a real cookie, never a biscuit, no matter what country you’re in. Chunks of chocolate, nugets of walnut, chewey porridge oats. If I was the sort that liked to eat raw cookie dough – and surprisingly I’m not – I suspect that I could put Ben and Jerry’s out of business.

I adapted this cookie from a recipe in a book called Boston Tea Parties: Recipes from the Museum of Fine Arts.  My mother bought this book at the MFA on the same day that we visited Boston Harbor when I was about twelve. Even now, whenever I think of the Boston Tea Party, I imagine colonists dressed as Mohawk warriors, nibbling on dainty cakes and cookies as they throw fine china cups and saucers of tea into the harbour.

Well, I never promised a history lesson. But I do promise some seriously large cookies. Consuming one of these ugly giants may seem daunting at first, but I’m betting that you’ll manage two or three with a good pot of tea, I mean coffee.

Boston Tea-Party Choc-Chip Oatmeal Cookies

  • 3/4 cup caster sugar
  • 3/4 cup soft brown sugar
  • 1 cup butter
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tablespoons hot water
  • 1 & 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 cups porridge oats
  • 350 grams milk or plain bar chocolate 
  • 1 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla

Cream together sugars and butter. Beat in the eggs and hot water. Sift together the flours, soda and salt. Add the dry ingredients to the creamed mixture and stir to combine.

Chop the chocolate into medium chunks. Add the chocolate, oats, walnuts and vanilla to the mixture and stir. Drop large tablespoonfuls of the dough onto a baking sheet, spaced 5 centimetres apart. Bake in a preheated 190 oven for 10 minutes. Leave to cool on the tray for 10 minutes before removing to a rack.

Choc-chip oatmeal cookies

Shortcrust pastry

I’ve always had cold hands, but since having my daughter I’ve regularly experienced Raynaud’s phenomenon, which leaves my hands white and bloodless. The only good thing about this is that I am now the perfect pastry making machine.

This week I made a spinach quiche and a peach pie, both using the same pastry recipe. I don’t like sweet pastry much and prefer to make a version of this shortcrust for almost every pie or tart, no matter the filling. I’ve used this pastry for everything from chocolate tart to quorn mince pie.

The quantities here are based on the standard size pack of butter in both the UK and Australia, so no measuring or weighing of butter is required. For me, the most annoying recipes are those that measure butter in cups. I takes so long to squish butter into a cup measure and then scrape it out again. I always envy American cooks who only need to count out sticks of butter in order to follow a recipe.  Here, 250 grams of butter will make enough pastry for two pie crusts or two big tart cases.

Shortcrust pastry

  • 340 g flour
  • 250 g butter
  • big pinch of salt
  • up to 60 mls or 4 tablespoons water (chilled for at least 30m minutes)

Sift the flour and salt into the centre of a clean work bench or marble slab. Remove the butter from the fridge and chop into small squares. Toss these in the flour and rub lightly between your fingers until the flour and butter come together and look almost like breadcrumbs. (Don’t try to get rid of every piece of butter; a few larger flakes of fat won’t hurt the pastry. Leaving them in will ensure that you don’t overmix and end up with a tough crust.)

Take the water from the fridge or, if you’re forgetful like me, put a couple of ice cubes in a small bowl of water for a minute or two and measure your fluid from that. Sprinkle the water a tablespoonful at a time into the flour and use the tips of your fingers to work the water into the flour and butter.  This step is more about bringing the dough together than it is about mixing or kneading. The dough should be soft, not sticky, and hold its shape. Once the dough holds together, cut and shape it into two balls, wrap in cling-film and refrigerate for an hour. (These balls can be frozen and then defrosted in the fridge for later use.)

Remove the dough from the fridge, and roll out with a rolling-pin on a floured work surface to about 1/2 centimetre. Flip the dough over two or three times during the rolling. Lift the dough, by folding it over the rolling-pin, and lay it over the pie dish or tart tin. Press down gently into the corners and trim the edges with a sharp knife.

Return the pastry case to the fridge for 30 minutes. Before baking, line the pastry with baking paper and fill with pastry weights. (I use a mix of lentils, rice and black-eyed beans that are very hard and small from being cooked so many times.) Bake blind in a preheated 200°C oven for 15 minutes. Remove the paper and weights and return to the oven for a further 5 minutes.

You’re now halfway to a tart.


Banana Loaf

There is a sign in our local green grocer that reads: ‘Please do not press our peaches and nectarines’. We need a sign like this on our fruit bowl, as Ila’s favourite activity of the moment is squishing bananas or pushing straws and crayons into soft stone-fruit. Yesterday she did a number on two bananas. They were so black by the evening that the only solution was to make banana loaf.

I was cleaning a mountain of dishes, and didn’t want to make much mess, so managed to make this entire cake using only one saucepan, a teaspoon and the kitchen scales. Clearly, I’m still inspired by last weeks gâteau au yaourt.

The cake disappeared in 5 minutes when I cut into it at my office this morning. However, that’s not exactly praise as my colleagues aren’t at all discerning when it comes to cake. This one is very moist at least, but I’m pretty sure that there is a better banana bread lurking out there waiting for me, so I expect to be coming back to amend this recipe in the near future.

Meanwhile, if you don’t like the sound of the cake, check out The Banana Song. We’re addicted to this in our house at the moment. It’s silly and a bit annoying, but Ila thinks it’s pretty funny and I’ll take it over The Wiggles any day.

Banana Loaf Cake

  • 125 g butter
  • 150 g soft brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • 2 very ripe bananas
  • 180 g plain flour
  • 2 and 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/4 cup milk
  • handful of sliver almonds

Mash the bananas. Melt the butter and sugar in a saucepan over low heat. Turn off the heat and allow to cool slightly before stirring in the mashed banana, the vanilla and the beaten egg.

Sift together the flour, baking powder and nutmeg. Fold this into the saucepan mixture, alternating with the milk. Pour the mix into a greased loaf tin, lined with a wide strip of baking paper (across the long edges) for easy removal. Scatter the top with slivered almonds and bake in a 180°C oven for 30-35 minutes.

Gâteau au yaourt

My mother sent me a book for my birthday called French Children Don’t Throw Food. Its author, Pamella Drukerman, believes that French children adapt more quickly to adult social norms than English children. This is possible, Drukerman attests, because French parents expect children to exhibit patience and independence far earlier than their English counterparts. Apparently, French parents make clear their expectations by ignoring their children for much of the day.

Having lived in France as an exchange student and an au pair, I know for certain that French children do throw food on occasion and that they aren’t possessed of infinite patience. However, there is a certain structure to eating and sleeping that seems to be a common experience for French children. French children eat at 8am, noon, 4pm and 8pm, after which they go to bed and sleep for 12 hours. I haven’t witnessed anything like this rigour, which is calming rather than militant,  among my friends with children in the UK. I certainly haven’t managed to introduce it into my own house.

Drukerman advises that one of the earliest lessons in patience that French mothers teach their children is through baking. At least here I can equal the Parisian supermamans of Druckerman’s acquaintance! She mentions the gâteau au yaourt as the first cake that French children learn how to bake. Having baked this cake innumerable times in 1998 with my Breton host-sisters, I decide that a wet Sunday afternoon is perfect for Ila’s first lesson in patience.

My host sisters loved this recipe because it didn’t require any measuring apparatus other than the individual-portion-size tub of yogurt and a teaspoon. As well as teaching patience, this cake is very good for learning about ratios. I notice that my recipe is almost exactly the same as Drukerman’s, and that of my favourite Parisian food blogger Clothide Dusoulier. This clearly is a French classic – at least for as long as yogurt has been sold in 125ml tubs.

Even though she is only 18 months old, Ila is delighted to be able to pour and mix and slosh. Her enthusiasm results in the addition of rather more rum than I’d usually add, but it only seems to improve the final product.

Gâteau au yaourt

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 tubs (or 1 cup) plain full-fat yogurt
  • 1 tub (or 1/2 cup) plain sugar – increase this to two tubs or a whole cup if you have a sweet tooth
  • 3/4 tub (90 mls) canola/rapeseed oil
  • 4 tubs plain flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 1 teaspoon rum
  • a pinch of salt

Beat the eggs. Add the yogurt, oil, sugar, vanilla and rum. In a separate bowl, sift the flour, baking powder and salt. Fold the dry ingredients gently into the wet mixture. Pour into a lined and floured tin and bake in a preheated 180C oven for 30 minutes or until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean. Let cool briefly in the pan before turning onto a wire rack.

This cake can be adapted by adding a tubful of chocolate chips, two tubs of mixed frozen berries, or two tubs of chopped apple and a teaspoon of ground cinnamon just before baking.