Christmas food Aussie style

We had such a fabulous feast of food over Christmas that I couldn’t resist taking photos of it all. And it seems a shame to have a bunch of food photos and not write a blog post to show them off! This will probably be of most interest to my British family and friends, for whom the notion of a hot Christmas and all that entails is still something of a novelty. I hope the rest of you will find something to enjoy too.

‘Twas the night before Christmas and we all gathered at Watergums, a large, gnarly timber cabin by a platypus-inhabited billabong off the Barrington River, where half our party was staying for our festive family get-together. We sat around a big wooden table on the deck, a game of Scrabble in progress, surrounded by the heat and the din of cicadas. Dinner was Uncle Barry’s famous tomato bruschetta, followed by barbecued steak and chorizo sausages with baked sweet potato and coleslaw, topped off with peach trifle. Trifle is a particular Christmas favourite of mine. Granny always used to make our Christmas trifle, served in a beautiful crystal bowl. After Granny moved off the island my mother made it, to much the same recipe, and I always got to decorate the top with amaretti biscuits and tinned mandarin segments.

Christmas Day began with the traditional swim – not at Freshwater Beach where we go when Christmas is at Barry and Penny’s, but in the aforementioned Barrington River, down at Rocky Crossing, a couple of hundred metres from the turnoff to Lorna’s (my mother-in-law’s) farm. Back up at the farm, we breakfasted on Bourke Street Bakery croissants and mince pies before the Watergums mob arrived to fire up the barbecue for the turkey. The enormous free-range bird was swathed in two large pieces of pig skin before being consigned to the fiery innards of the Weber! At midday we judged the sun to be over the yardarm and broke out the champagne and orange juice, squeezed from oranges from Lorna’s garden, and also Lorna’s delicious homemade camembert.

It became apparent that the Weber was not getting up to temperature and the turkey would take longer to cook than previously anticipated. Meanwhile we tucked into the first course, supplied by cousin Cameron – three kilos of plump, sweet, Australian wild-caught tiger prawns with Penny’s Marie Rose sauce (mayo, tomato sauce, tabasco, Worcestershire sauce and possibly other things I’ve forgotten).

Australian wild-caught tiger prawns

Australian wild-caught tiger prawns

Eventually the menfolk gave up on the barbecue and transferred the turkey to the oven to finish it off and brown it. The Weber may not have cooked the bird but it did turn the pig skin into fantastic light, puffed-up, crunchy crackling, albeit it hadn’t been salted since its purpose was not for eating. Didn’t stop us eating some of it, however!

Pork crackling

Pork crackling

Free-range turkey

Free-range turkey

Beside the turkey our spread included free-range ham (glazed by yours truly in apricot jam and stuck with cloves)…

Free-range ham glazed with apricot jam

Free-range ham glazed with apricot jam

…Lorna’s mixed salad with homemade lemon myrtle mayo from her grandmother’s recipe, Penny’s legendary Hawaiian salad (sour cream, tinned crushed pineapple, tinned mandarin segments, desiccated coconut and miniature marshmallows) and equally popular onion salad…

Hawaiian salad

Hawaiian salad

…my mixed tomato and home-grown basil salad dressed in olive oil and top quality balsamic vinegar…

Mixed tomato and basil salad

Mixed tomato and basil salad

…and a huge fruit platter including watermelon, pineapple, grapes, cherries, nectarines, lychees, mangoes and strawberries.

Fruit platter

Fruit platter

Cameron had stuffed the turkey with a sweet, herbaceous mixture of ripe pear, bread crumbs, rosemary and oregano from the garden, and an egg to bind. Photographing this array of food I was struck by the Summery colours, the traditional turkey and ham from ‘the Motherland’ set off by a brighter, more vibrant palette than you’d see on a British Christmas lunch table. Eating this array of food, on the other hand, I was merely struck by how delicious it all was and how quickly I could go back for seconds!

Our Christmas spread

Our Christmas spread

Following a considerable break to allow all this to settle, we squeezed in some pudding – steamed Christmas pud (made by Lorna’s neighbour in return for a homemade Christmas cake) with Penny’s fabulous passion fruit ice cream and my brandy butter. Traditionally my mother and I would make the brandy butter together, without the aid of electrical appliances (hence the need for two pairs of arms), adding as much brandy, teaspoon by teaspoon, as we dared before it threatened to curdle! It’s also de rigueur, as far as I’m concerned, to feed oneself a little brandy in the process.

As is the way with Christmas food there was plenty left over for lunch on Boxing Day, with the addition of a potato salad and finished off with leftover trifle, ice cream and my Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake. The cake was a triumph, even if I do say so myself; wonderfully moist and dense with fruit. Good old Stephanie – hers will be my go-to Christmas cake recipe for evermore.

Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake

Stephanie Alexander Christmas cake

So, our Christmas viands (which word, incidentally, earned Mr T and I an awesome score in Scrabble on Christmas Day!) were a true blue team effort, provided by all, sourced as ethically as our purses would allow, and cooked and presented with love. It felt – and tasted! – great to be a part of that. For me, food and family is what Christmas is all about, and this one certainly made the mark. Thank you, one and all!

My apple chutney - presies for the family

My apple chutney – presies for the family

Braised rabbit, and banana cake with caramel sauce

In celebration of our beautiful new cooktop which arrived and was installed last Friday, I had a weekend of cooking. On Saturday I made a rabbit stew which has been on my ‘Things To Cook’ list for ages, and on Sunday a banana and caramel cake.

With the high winds on Saturday and only a bike for transport, shopping for my Thomasina Miers rabbit recipe takes until lunch time. I’m slightly stunned at the price of rabbits – two cost me just over $50! I had presumed, like many other slow-cooking cuts, they were going to be cheap, but alas, no. Never mind; I am determined, once in my life, to cook rabbit! I brown my two rabbits (which the butcher at the wonderful Dulwich Hill Gourmet Meats has jointed into four pieces each), first coating them in plain flour seasoned with salt and pepper, and put them into the slow-cooker. Next I sauté two diced celery sticks and 10 peeled whole French shallots in some clean oil (after wiping the blackened flour out of my pan), and put those aside. The next step is to caramelise, in a knob of butter, the cut surfaces of an orange cut in half around its equator, and a whole head of garlic cut likewise. Aside go those too. Into the pan now I put 100g of blanched almonds, fairly finely chopped, a tablespoon of chopped rosemary, a teaspoon of chopped thyme, two bay leaves, a pinch of saffron threads, an inch of grated ginger and the zest of a lemon, and stir them around until the nuts turn golden brown. Meanwhile I heat up 200ml of sherry. I pour the sherry into the nut mixture along with the sautéed vegetables, orange and garlic, and I’m supposed to light the sherry with a match and let it flambé. Perhaps the sherry isn’t hot enough because it refuses to ignite, so instead I let it bubble for a bit so that the alcohol burns off. Next I add 500ml of chicken stock and bring it to the boil before pouring the lot over the rabbit pieces and turning the slow-cooker on high.

By now it’s about 6.30pm because I’ve had to pop out mid-prep to the bottlo for sherry, and I’ve had a lovely Skype with my brother and twin niece and nephew, and dinner is clearly not going to be ready until bedtime! This happens to me a lot – I should always allow about twice the time that I think it’s going to take to make anything. Mr T has given up and gone to the pub for dinner with friends, and I resort to that most reliable of staples, pasta and pesto. Not to worry, the rabbit will taste even better tomorrow night…

Next day I set about making the banana and caramel cake, one of the fabulous recipes in my Bourke Street Bakery book. First I cream 250g of unsalted butter with 355g of caster sugar and the seeds from a vanilla bean (split lengthways and scraped out) in the Kenwood mixer (thank you, Jono!) with the whisk attachment. Only trouble is the butter is so cold (since I forgot to take it out of the fridge in advance) that it takes about half an hour of whisking, scraping the sides, whisking, scraping, to coax it into the right consistency. Then I whisk in four eggs, one at a time, with more side scraping to ensure they’re properly incorporated. Next in goes 200g of sour cream in two batches and 300g sifted self-raising flour, again in two batches. I mash three ripe bananas and sprinkle them with brown sugar before folding them through the mixture, and then pour it into a greased, lined 28cm tin. By now Mr T has arrived home from work so I give him the bowl and spatula to lick. (I have already had my fun with the whisk attachment!) The cake goes into the oven at 200 degrees celsius for 55 minutes initially, soon after which I place another piece of baking paper over the top to stop it going too brown.

Meanwhile, I heat up some rabbit stew. (There are another six helpings in the freezer. Before boxing it up, I scraped into the sauce the flesh from the now-soft orange halves and squirted all the garlic out of its soggy, papery skins.) Much of the meat has fallen off the bones but that’s only a good sign as far as I’m concerned, even if it doesn’t look terribly attractive. To go with it we have steamed broccoli and mashed potato with lots of butter, hot milk, salt and pepper and about four teaspoons of Dijon mustard; I once had rabbit with a mustardy sauce and it was a good combo. The result is delicious – the rabbit is tender and moist and tastes like a gamier version of chicken (but with a lot more bones!), and the sauce is crunchy with nuts and subtly orangey. The mash is robust in flavour and a perfect accompaniment.

Braised rabbit with rosemary and orange

Braised rabbit with rosemary and orange, Chez Mr & Mrs T

Dinner is interrupted a couple of times to check the cake. At 55 minutes a skewer comes out still sticky so we give it another ten and that seems to do it. Now for the caramel. Into a big saucepan I put 100ml of water and 300g caster sugar. Once dissolved I stop stirring and leave the mixture to bubble away on a fairly high heat for 7-10 minutes until it starts to go caramel coloured around the sides, taking it off the heat at that point to stop it burning. Meanwhile I’ve heated 200ml of whipping cream to near boiling point and now I add that to the sugar solution and it expands to about four times its original volume, bubbling ferociously up the sides of the pan, hence the need to use a big pan. This now goes back onto the heat and I whisk it until it’s smooth, after which I take it off the heat and let it cool slightly before whisking in 80g of unsalted butter for flavour and glossiness. I then pour it slowly over the still-warm cake, now out of its tin, into which Mr T has poked about 40 holes with a skewer so that the caramel oozes inside. Fortunately he has also had the foresight to put the cake in a pie dish with fairly high sides because much of the caramel runs off the cake forming a moat around it. I then spend the next 20 minutes basting the cake, trying to encourage more caramel into the holes!

When we slice it shortly after that it’s still so warm and soft that it disintegrates a bit, but it tastes amazing, so sweet and gooey, taking me back 30 years to the treacle sponge pudding we had at primary school. It’s crying out for vanilla ice cream but sadly we don’t have any. Next morning, after a night in the fridge, it’s completely solid and cuts easily like a dense cake, beautifully marbled and tasting much more of bananas than it did before. I take half the cake into work to share with colleagues for morning tea, by which time it’s reached room temperature which is another experience again. Now I notice the browned, toffee-coated crust which lends a lovely chewiness to contrast the sponge. Like the perfect little black dress, this versatile dish transitions effortlessly from desk to dinner table! Personally I think it shines best as a pudding, still warm from the oven and drowned in hot, runny caramel. Just don’t forget the vanilla ice cream.

Banana cake with caramel sauce

Banana cake with caramel sauce, Chez Mr & Mrs T

A Pret sandwich and Vietnamese beef salad

Bizarrely, one of the foodie things I most look forward to on my trips to the UK is Pret A Manger sandwiches. This is especially the case at Christmas time when they do a Christmas Lunch sandwich – a heavenly combination of turkey, great slabs of herby stuffing, cranberry sauce, mayonnaise, crispy fried onions and some token greenery to obscure the fact that you are actually eating pure lard. Sadly, being June, the Christmas Lunch sandwich is having a well-earned Summer holiday so, on coming across a Pret at Marble Arch at lunchtime last Thursday, I choose the crayfish with lemon mayo and rocket. Pret is a very well marketed brand, in my opinion. Their promise is freshness and flavour and boy do they deliver. The soft, grainy bread is generously filled with plump, tender crayfish and peppery, unwithered rocket, and the lemon mayo adds the perfect zing. Plus, in a perfect example of internalising your brand promise, the staff are so damn perky and helpful that you really think that Pret must be an awesome place to work, and that does add to the enjoyment of the experience.

In the evening I cook dinner for Alex as a thank you for their wonderful hospitality. Laura is trying out a special diet that seems to consist mostly of mushed up aubergines so sadly she can’t partake of my culinary efforts. I make a Vietnamese beef salad from a favourite Nigel Slater recipe which I know by heart having made it so many times. Into a big salad bowl I put two ripe vine tomatoes cut into thin wedges, the equivalent of one large carrot and about 10cm of cucumber cut into matchsticks, some salad leaves (the recipe suggests watercress), a handful each of chopped fresh mint and coriander and one birdseye chili finely sliced (I leave the seeds in but I’m a chili freak). The only thing that’s missing that I didn’t manage to find at the shop is about four kaffir lime leaves which you’re supposed to de-vein, roll up tightly and then slice as thinly as you possible can. I love the flavour and fragrance that these add. I then prepare the dressing in a small bowl – the juice of a lime, two and a half tablespoons of sweet chili sauce, two tablespoons of fish sauce and a good pinch of sugar. All that remains is to cook the steaks – two lovely pieces of sirloin from the local butcher in Kew Gardens which earlier I’ve rubbed with some olive oil and sprinkled with black pepper. They’re not overly thick so I fry them in a very hot pan for just one and a half minutes on the first side and one on the second, grinding on some sea salt as they cook. After resting them for a few minutes I slice them into strips which are a lovely dark pink inside. I toss them into the salad along with the dressing and we’re ready to eat.

Vietnamese beef salad

Vietnamese beef salad, chez Alex & Laura

Alex is so enthusiastic in his compliments that I’m really quite chuffed I chose this recipe. It’s a bowlful of vibrant flavours and textures with the crunchy vegetables, tender rare steak and sweet-sour-salty dressing, plus a good chili kick that really gives our sinuses a workout. For pudding we have beautiful fat raspberries (only £2 for a big punnet from M&S – in Oz they’re extortionately expensive) with half-fat crème fraiche and a light sprinkling of white sugar. And over a few glasses of white burgundy followed by a fruity little sauv blanc from New Zealand, we reminisce about an enlightening (for me, anyway) visit I made to see Alex at Oxford University 20 odd years ago. As the cliché goes (and increasingly so, the older we get), how time flies!

Irish stew on a very rainy day

It’s the Queen’s Birthday public holiday and it has rained solidly from the moment I got up at 7am until now (which is 4pm) and it’s showing no signs of stopping. I am sitting at my computer, huddled around a heater along with racks of laundry slowly drying on a rotisserie basis. “A great day for cooking an Irish stew!”, I declared this morning, and braved the wet (eventually) in wellies and mac to buy ingredients up the road in Marrickville, officially the best suburb in Sydney.

I am using a recipe, rather appropriately, by Irish cooking queen Rachel Allen so it ought to be good – although it’d be difficult to go far wrong with such a simple stew. I brown 1.5kg of lamb neck, which I asked the butcher to cut into thick slices (four per neck) until they’re beautifully caramelised. (It’s funny how ever since Masterchef came on the scene cooking is ALL about caramelisation!) I put them in the bottom of the slow cooker. Into the still-hot olive oil go four carrots and two onions cut into chunks, plus eight cloves of garlic, peeled but not chopped. (The recipe calls for 12 baby onions, which would have been lovely and sweet, but they only came in huge bags at the local supermarket.) I sauté those for a few minutes, seasoning well, then add them to the slow cooker. On top of the meat and veg I add a few sprigs of thyme, more salt and pepper, 500ml of chicken stock and 100ml of water, plus 10 potatoes cut in half. It’s been cooking for an hour and a half so far and I intend to leave it for another three hours at least. Plenty of time for yet another pot of tea and a yoga class to restore some life to my cold, damp bones… Except that as it turns out there’s no yoga because it’s a public holiday, so instead I drink wine and paint my toes in preparation for my upcoming holiday!

I take the lid off for the final hour since slow cooking retains a lot of moisture. If I was doing a proper job I’d finish by pouring off the liquid, chilling it with ice cubes or in the fridge, and scooping off the fat before returning it to the stew. But that’s way too much of a faff, and besides, we’re ready to eat. The overriding flavour of this stew is sweetness – the meat falling off its spiky bones, the gelatinous marrow in the centre, the soft cylinders of carrot, the layers of onion. The fattiness gives it a richness, coating the mouth and no doubt sticking the ribs together! Desiree potatoes are the perfect variety for this stew – wonderfully waxy, almost fudgy – and mashed with a fork they provide the perfect blotting paper for all the lovely juices. I’m rather sorry I won’t be here to enjoy the leftovers which are now in the freezer, but hopefully going to Blighty in Summer I’ll be able to escape this incessant rain. Now that’s ironic!

Irish stew

Irish stew, chez Mr & Mrs T

Slow-braised beef cheeks in red wine

Last Sunday’s culinary adventure was beef cheeks. We’ve had a freezer full of various bits of cow, thanks to my beef-rearing mother-in-law. I’ve curried chuck, sizzled steaks and braised beef neck (now there’s a cut you don’t hear about very often) – I appropriated a recipe for oxtail stew, left it to putter away in the slow-cooker all day and it was really delicious.

So, the beef cheeks. I Google for recipes, since my cook books are disappointingly lacking on this score, and find a great one from Maggie Beer which I adapt slightly owing to time constraints. Following a trip to the supermarket I get down to business. The recipe says to marinate the meat the day before but it’s too late for that. So I pat the four cheeks dry, season them with salt and pepper, and brown them in the big non-stick pan until they are nicely caramelised. Into the slow-cooker they go. Then I pour a cup of red wine into the pan which hisses and bubbles before it starts to simmer and reduce gradually to half the amount, a deep plum-coloured liquid. That too goes into the slow-cooker. I wipe out the pan with kitchen paper, heat some olive oil, and sauté a chopped onion and celery stick until they are translucent and a bit brown at the edges. I put those in the pan too along with two cups of beef stock, plus the herbs that would have been part of the marinade: thyme, star anise and bay leaves.

It cooks for four hours by which time the cheeks are still quite firm when prodded with a wooden spoon. I debate whether to chance it and eat them now, or get in take-away, let the beef continue cooking ’til bed-time and eat them the next night instead. I decide on the latter and pop up the road to get goat curry, tandoori chicken and garlic naan from our fabulous Indian place, Faheem. The beef cheeks cook for another hour or more and the prod test reveals that they are now beautifully soft and apt to fall apart – perfick! Next day I reheat them and their fabulously gelatinous sauce and serve with mashed potato and steamed cavelo nero which we bought from the wonderful Eveleigh Market in Redfern on Saturday. The meat does indeed fall apart at the mere touch of a fork and it’s tender and succulent. The sauce is rich and complex with the intense flavours of concentrated red wine. It’s fair to say I am very happy indeed!

Slow-braised beef cheeks in red wine

Slow-braised beef cheeks in red wine, chez Mr & Mrs T

Two ways with lentils

Last Tuesday Mr T decided he would like to cook something so I am ushered out of the kitchen to watch Masterchef next door. We know from experience that the control freak in me can’t resist the urge to offer ‘suggestions’ and ‘advice’ from the sidelines, so it’s really best not to spectate. All I know is it’s going to involve lentils and sausages and he’s got my Jamie’s Italy propped open on the book stand. It’s so unlike Mr T to cook from a recipe that I’m intrigued! I think it’s got something to do with the fact that we’ve had bags of lentils hanging around in the fridge (owing to our weevil curse) for well over a year and Mr T is sick of the sight of them…

A short while later it’s ready – we’ve each got a bowl of tender red lentils tossed in a little olive oil and red wine vinegar, studded with fresh chopped flat-leaf parsley. On top is piled fat, diagonal slices of really good quality sausage – one chorizo, one boerewurst (not strictly what the Italian recipe calls for but what of that). On the side is a beautiful hot, sweet-sour, cinnamon-scented tomato ‘salsa’ to spoon over the top. And for ‘contorni’ we’ve got vibrant green brocoli branches dressed with lemon juice and olive oil. It’s such a wonderfully robust combination of flavours and rustic textures, a perfect peasant feast for a cold night. And I fill my boots – rather too much!

Sausages and lentils with tomato salsa

Sausages and lentils with tomato salsa, chez Mr & Mrs T

Two days later we’ve got a container of left-over cooked lentils in the fridge. I consult the bible, our Stephanie Alexander tome, on what goes with lentils and combine them with roasted pumpkin and red onion wedges sprinkled with cumin seeds, chopped fresh tomatoes, baby spinach leaves, lemon juice, olive oil, salt and pepper. To make this a meal Mr T buys a whole roast chook from Oporto on the way home. And as a cheeky starter we have devils on horseback à la Mr T – prunes wrapped in bacon, grilled and served on a skewer!

Roast pumpkin and lentil salad

Roast pumpkin and lentil salad, chez Mr & Mrs T

Devils on horseback a la Mr T

Devils on horseback à la Mr T, chez Mr & Mrs T