Tuesday, 27 September 2011

101 Things Update - Weeks 9-11

Well, things are still hectic and hellish but I'm slowly settling back into a routine, which is good. And despite the fact I have been quite absent, rest assured that I HAVE actually been achieving things from my list! I'll explain the changed goals next time, and I haven't posted about all of these (I promise I'll get to it!) but for now, there's this, in reverse chronological order:

#40 - to buy a good pair of sneakers that support my feet like they should: Check. Bought them on Sunday. Haven't used 'em yet, mind you...

#31 - to build a Lego model: Check. Did I ever! Spent all of Saturday on my knees. Um, playing Lego... ! And I didn't just build one, I built, like, five. And I'm still going. And my dad came over and played with me and it was soooo cooool!!!


#30 - to do a jigsaw puzzle: Well, I haven't started it but I have bought one, so I'm on the path to achieving this one. You know that famous photo of those guys sitting on a steel girder, high above New York City eating their lunch? Well I reckon it might be the same guys, but they're all having a snooze. It sort of made me wonder if it was a staged or superimposed photo, which made me question the authenticity of the "real" photo of the guys having lunch... way to burst my bubble...

#71 - to learn the basic geography of Africa: I've just started to learn about Morocco. Watch this space for the first of waaaaaaay too many. Stupid goal, this one...

#39 - to climb Mount Bogong (again): I am in the process of rallying the troops, and of convincing myself that serious, regular exercise is a good way to prepare for something like this, especially if you have a heart condition...

#9 - to make gnocchi from scratch: Check. I made it (them? Is gnocchi by implication a collection of singular objects considered to be one dish, or does it refer to the individual components that make up the dish?? Is it like the words "sheep" and "fish" and "deer"?? Can someone help me because my head's exploding!!!) for the lovely Mary in Adelaide the weekend before last. Thanks for the company, Mary! Hope you enjoyed the leftovers.

#18 - to make a lemon tart: Check. Again, I made it for dinner with Mary in Adelaide, and again, she took the leftovers off my hands on account of the fact that I would be leaving town the following morning. Luckily I saved myself a piece for brekkie (yes, really) otherwise there would have been no evidence that the tart ever existed!

#16 - to make Monkeyface biscuits. Hurrah! I did this! AND I wrote a post on it! The Cake With and his lovely family took them for their first test run in the morning (they must have been okay cos The Junior Burger went back for seconds, and even little Caitlin wanted some of her dad's), and Jody came for the second round in the afternoon but settled for miniature versions of the lemon tart instead, and I sent a Monkeyface home for her mister, Brad. This suited me quite nicely because by the time I got back to Melbourne on the Sunday night, all I wanted to eat for dinner was... you guessed it... the last Monkeyface that had travelled interstate in my handbag! Quite possibly the world record for Monkeyface travel...

Maybe it's because I'm ever so slightly addicted to raspberry jam biscuits (seriously, I could polish off a whole packet of those Raspberry Shortcake bikkies... okay, maybe not quite... OMG but those Kooka's Country Cookies with the jam centres that you get a motels? *swoons*) but I happened to really, really enjoy these and I will be sure to make them again. And then I'll have to make another batch because I will have eaten all the first one and there won't be any left for anyone else.

So, all things considered, tough though the last little while has been, I think I've been doing okay. I seem to be averaging doing one thing and starting one thing per week, although that will probably flatline quite shortly. Maybe my little list is keeping me afloat, or maybe the feeling of achievement is just a happy side-effect. Who knows? Who cares? I'm doin' stuff I wanna do! I promise I'll post about it soon.

Meanwhile, this is the last week of September (oh CRAP, I just wrote "August" and August is long gone!) which means that I have to make cupcakes on Friday night otherwise I have just ruined Year of the Cupcake!!! That's okay, I'll bake them Friday and decorate them Saturday. Technically, that way, I still made them during September. Whew.

Feta, Pancetta and Basil Mini Toasts

Behold the glory that is the mini toast! Cute and versatile, I happen to think that this Blast from the Past is tasty enough to be used at any social gathering. I seem to recall some very odd things being put on them in the eighties and nineties, but they ain't no cream of chicken and mushroom vol-au-vent (no idea whether I spelled that one correctly, but I think ya'll know the little Filo Baskets from Hell that I am referring to).

And that's a good thing.

I dreamt up this combination on my three-and-a-half-hour Friday night drive back to Melbourne the other week (does anyone else spend as great a proportion of their waking hours as I do thinking about food??). I had already decided to make brother Saul a caramel mud cake and had more or less nutted out how I would decorate it (which, by the way, was blown out of the water by the fact that NOBODY in Eltham seems to stock Jersey Caramels(!!!), so I had to improvise), and my mind then wandered to savoury food as I wasn't quite sure if I was supposed to bring a plate. Well, I figured that even if I wasn't supposed to bring one, that nobody would have trouble polishing off a plate of them.

They're super simple:

1 packet mini toasts
10 thin slices of pancetta
1 thick slice of Danish feta from the deli
1 bunch of basil.

I used a pair of scissors to cut up the pancetta into 4 or so strips (they should be ever so slightly narrower than the mini toast, and short enough to wrap once around a small cube of feta without too much hanging over at the end).

I then cubed the feta into about 24 pieces (they were probably a little small but still tasty), popped each cube on 1 small/half a large basil leaf (tear them, don't cut them), put them, feta side down, on the middle of a piece of pancetta, wrap both sides of the pancetta up over the basil, then flip them on to a mini toast so that the join in the pancetta is on the bottom (i.e. touching the toast). The weight of the filling should hold the pancetta in place. 

Creamy, salty, fresh and crunchy all at once. I insist you try these immediately! And, just quietly, because the basil makes it taste so fresh I reckon you could probably polish off almost a whole batch and somehow convince yourself that you'd eaten health food, and not a great big hunk of cheese!

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Monkeyface biscuits

Last weekend in Adelaide I had quite the cooking weekend, knocking three items off my 101 Things list. This is one of them - monkeyface biscuits. If you're not familiar with the monkeyface, it is basically a simple jam biscuit with three holes, one for each eye and one for the mouth, the most basic icing imaginable, and finished with toasted coconut. Yum. It's funny, though - when I Googled the recipe with this particular challenge in mind, I kept coming up with all sorts of bizarre combinations involving crushed Flake chocolate bars, and none involving coconut. I'm wondering whether it's an Australian thing, and I'm also wondering whether it's one of those recipes that everyone kind of takes for granted because it's a bit of a no-brainer.

It involves making a basic biscuit recipe, adding jam and sandwiching the biscuits together and then whacking them back in the oven for a little under ten minutes to help the jam set, and then icing and dipping them in toasted coconut. They're a little bit fiddly to assemble but altogether I would still rate them as a simple recipe.

This bias may be in part related to the fact that the other two recipes I tackled last weekend were lemon tart, and gnocchi. As in, from scratch.

110g butter, softened
1/2c castor sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
3/4 plain flour
3/4 self raising flour

Raspberry jam (allow approx. 1-2tsp per biscuit. Smoosh it around in the jar with a spoon so that there are no lumps. No doubt the more sophisticated bakers out there would heat and strain it, but I happen to think that's a colossal wank waste of time unless you're sticking sugarpaste to a cake, in which case it's important not to have lumps)
1c icing sugar, sifted
1tbsp (+a little extra) boiling water (it will depend on how spreadable you want your icing)
1/2c shredded coconut, lightly toasted (you can do this in a nonstick pan but be aware that it needs constant attention and continues to cook after you take it off the heat. I originally toasted a whole cup and had heaps left over, so I'm estimating that half a cup should suffice. Don't kill me if I'm wrong!)

Do the usual biscuit thing - cream butter and sugar, add egg and vanilla and combine, then add flour.

If you're not the sort of person to stock SR flour in the house and rely instead on baking powder and plain flour, swear loudly when you realise that you have none left and the shops are shut because you're in Adelaide not Melbourne...

... then breathe a sigh of relief when you realise you have the ingredients to make your own baking powder! I seem to recall that baking powder = 1 part bicarb soda to 2 parts cream of tartar.

You then have to go a bit silly over the super-cute tin of biscuit cutters you bought that day for the purpose. True monkeyfaces, after all, have a fluted edge, and you can't very well use the plain round cutters you already have.

And if you're smart, like me, you'll get more bang for your buck and buy a nested set, in a super-cute tin, that also happens to be double edged. I just kept kicking goals all around there, didn't I :)

Knead the dough on a lightly floured bench until it's smooth and sticks together, and then roll out using a floured rolling pin and cut using floured cutters. I experimented a bit with the sizes to get the most bang for my buck with the dough. I was a bit disappointed by the number the recipe made but I guess if you make them a bit smaller it's no biggie (hah! Oh, you know what I mean. Obviously if they're smaller they're not big. I meant that it's no big deal, as in, not a problem. But you got that, right? Yeah, you're right, I do need to go to bed...).

Once you've cut them out, use the end of a wooden spoon handle to make the eyes and mouth in half of the biscuits (make sure that if you're making different sizes, that you have pairs consisting of one intact biscuit and one with facial features, both of the same size). You may need to scrape the cavities you make out a little using a sharp knife once they're cooked (sounds feral to be scraping out the eyes of a poor innocent monkey, but you'll see what I mean!).

Cook on tray lined with baking paper for 8-10 minutes at 160oC, cool on tray for a minute or two and then transfer to a rack. This is how many this recipe made. The largest one was quite big and the smallest one was about the size of a "normal" biscuit, perhaps slightly larger. See what I mean about the eyes? It's like they've been punching on...

Spread jam in the middle, sandwich together (bottom sides facing in) and pop back in the oven at 200oC for about another 8 minutes (mind they don't catch) to heat the jam a little and help it to set. Let them cool on the rack completely before decorating.

Make up the icing (note that the above quantities will probably make about double what you need, but better to have too much than too little). You may need to play with the consistency a little but you don't want it to be too thick or too thin. I used 1tbsp of boiling water and that was a little stiff, so I added a tiny splash more and it was fine. Spread it in a "peace sign" shape around the eyes and mouth with a pallet knife, being careful not to use too much icing otherwise it gets in the eyes and you have to clean it out with a knife again, and now that it contains jam that just seems wrong.... and then you dip it in the coconut while it's still wet and then leave on a wire rack to dry.


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Caramel Mud Cake, Decorated with Dark Chocolate Ganache

The other week was my baby brother's 31st birthday. Note that I refer to him as my baby brother, but he is in no way a baby - not only is he older than me but he is also significantly taller than me (difficult to imagine, I know) so that can't be why I refer to him as my baby brother. Maybe it's cos I feel like looking after him sometimes?? Or maybe it's cos I keep beating him at things, like getting my driver's licence and buying a house, even though I was set back by a good six months in the former case for (as it turns out, inaccuarate) medical reasons in addition to being eighteen months younger.

Hehe can you tell I like to rub it in? Hi, Saul! *waves* I lovez ya!!!

Anyway, I digress.

Originally I was planning to knock off one of my 101 Things items by making him the rainbow cake, but then I decided that he might not appreciate it as much as, say, the children of a friend might, so I opted for something rich and decadent, likely to please the masses.

I chose caramel mud cake!

I pulled inspiration from here and there and dreamed up the decoration all on my own (pretty hard to go wrong when your decoration involves chocolate, cream and caramels...), so here it is (and note that I spent about half an hour trying out a new way of displaying my recipes - namely, a flow chart with annotated arrows following groups of ingredients saying things like "melt" and "mix", because that's how I copy out recipes by hand  - and it was just too hard. I may try again at another date but for now I'll write it in a similar fashion, the way it appears in my head):


200g butter
200g white chocolate
1c brown sugar, firmly packed
1tbsp golden syrup
3/4c hot water
2tsp vanilla essence

Melt these over low-medium heat, stirring with wooden spoon until smooth. Cool 20mins (or, if you're impatient me, cool faster using a sink full of water. Not sure what effect this has on the mixture but don't much care!). Either way, only good can come of this concoction. Surely...

2 eggs

Add these in one at a time, mixing well after each.

1c plain flour
1c SR flour

Sift over moist mixture, stirring well until combined.

Bake in 22cm greased, lined tin at 160oC (oh yeah, forgot to say - preheat thy oven and grease and line thy tin before beginning) for 50-60 mins or until skewer comes out mostly clean.

Stand in tin 20mins before turning onto wire rack to cool.


300mL cream
400g dark chocolate, chopped finely. The technical measurement for this quantity of chocolate is "a buttload", as demonstrated by the following image:

Heat cream over low heat, stirring, until it just comes to the simmer and small bubbles are forming around the outside, then pour hot cream over chocolate in a heatproof bowl (or, if you use the microwave to heat the cream you can dump the chocolate into it to save using another pot), ensuring it is fully covered, and leave to sit for 1-2 minutes before stirring it together until smooth.

Keep a little under half warm (I used a double boiler on very low) for pouring over the cake (this will give you a lovely, glossy finish), and cool a little more than half in the fridge NOT FREEZER, stirring every couple of minutes until somewhere between the consistency of refrigerated margerine and butter.

Split the cake into two layers, using your awesome cake leveller that Kirsti got you for your birthday.

Marvel at how you can choose how thick a layer you wish to cut your cake into by simply slipping the wire up and down the grooves in the frame. 

Whip the cooled ganache until light and fluffy and spread between the layers, leaving some whipped ganache for piping.

Place cake rack on baking/pizza tray to catch the precious drips of delicious, molten ganache (you will probably want to eat these with a spoon later on use them to patch up any dud spots on your cake), then pour warm (but not hot) ganache over the cake. You don't want it too runny otherwise your coverage won't be thick and smooth enough.

Set in the refrigerator. Once set, decorate as you see fit. I used Pascall's caramel squares cut diagonally in half and glued them on using piped stars of whipped ganache. Also, as you can see from the ripples around my piping and caramels, it wasn't quite set when I added them. Like I said, I'm impatient! I would say that a little more set than this would be good, although probably not completely set because then the piping would be in danger of sliding off instead of becoming one with the poured ganache.

The whole process really does sound a little bit Zen, doesn't it.

I* then piped the remainder of the ganache onto a spoon and ate it. I refrained from piping directly into my mouth, even though I really wanted to.

Oh, and FYI, it may or may not freak you out to know that the last photo was taken in my mum's bathroom. No, nobody was using at the time, and no, the cake didn't touch anything - it was carried in and carried out and not even put down. But the light is SO MUCH BETTER in there, on account of it getting the afternoon sun and being tiled in white. I couldn't help it. So if you see that green tiled border in the future, that's what it's all about. Sorry if that grosses you out! It sure freaked my mum out, but she's a bit of a freakazoid when it comes to germs.

*By "I" I actually mean "we". Names have been changed to protect the identity of the innocent. 

Monday, 19 September 2011

The Daring Kitchen - Daring Cooks #2: Stock to Soup to Consumme - French Onion Consumme and Brioche

Well. If I thought that last month's Daring Kitchen challenge was... well, challenging, then I obviously didn't see this one coming!

Peta, of the blog Peta Eats, was our lovely hostess for the Daring Cook’s September 2011 challenge, “Stock to Soup to Consommé”. We were taught the meaning between the three dishes, how to make a crystal clear Consommé if we so chose to do so, and encouraged to share our own delicious soup recipes!

As the description suggests, this challenged walked us through the three stages of a consumme, starting with a good quality stock and ending up with a clear consumme. You know, if you did it right. Kind of not like me. Although it had a clear quality about it, a certain transparency, if you will, I don't know whether I quite followed the directions correctly.

Strained soup on the left, consumme on the right:

Can you tell the difference?

Didn't think so.

Honestly, though, there is a slight difference in clarity between the two. And you can also see some grogans floating atop of the consumme, which is indicative of my poor ladeling (one "l" or 2??) skillz.

Something that I did get right, though, was the brioche. But more on that later. First, to the soup recipe, which I will preface with a few handy tips:

1) this stock contains a buttload of vegies. I got a blister at the base of my index finger due to my poor cutting technique (and possibly also because I chopped a buttload of vegies with damp hands and a metal-handled knife). Note that the double-buttload of onions that is added later to the soup part (I made French Onion soup) required further chopping. Note also that I was supposed to use broccoli but the man at the greengrocer convinced mum that she really wanted broccolini, possibly in part because it was cheaper than regular broccoli. I don't know whether that detracted from the flavour but it tasted great to me so I was fine with it!
2) You'll need to use a bigger saucepan than you thought possible or reasonable. The one on the right is the one I originally wanted to use (it's a normal "large" pot that you get with a lot of saucepan sets, but nowhere near large enough for making soup, and have also discovered previously that it's not big enough for a batch of marmalade, either.

Huh. I made marmalade and forgot to blog about it. Oh well, I'll get to it one day!

Luckily mum used to cater for large groups of people, and so we had this lurking in the bottom of our shed. Turns out that all this time mum's been bitching about not having a good collander, she's had a darned good stainless steel one! Possible a little large for domestic purposes, but nonetheless she owns one.

Note that this is quite a long and detailed post, but it's an interesting read to find out the whole background to the stuff. Bet you never knew it was this complex! If you're not into soup, I'd skip straight to the brioche. If I can do it, you can do it!

To the recipe, but first the really, really detailed instructions that precede the whole shebang:

Preparation Time: 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 3 hours to 10 hours depending on the type of stock and amount made. (I did the vegetarian one which is quicker)

Preparation time: 30minutes
Cooking time: 45 minutes

Preparation Time: 3 hours, 30 minutes
Cooking Time: 40 minutes

Equipment required:

• Large, flat-bottomed pan or pot with lid.
• Food processor or a V-slicer or mandolin (not necessary, but handy) (OH! NOW I see this bit!!! Me and my stupid inability to read instructions in full)
• Knife
• Cutting board
• Whisk
• Bowls
• Sieve
• Clean tea towels or muslin that have been well rinsed in hot water.

Bread and/or Crackers
• Knife
• Cutting board
• Whisk
• Bowls
• Loaf tin or baking tray

Terminology (note that I have removed the bits that don't apply to the particular recipes I made):
Bouillon is French for Broth. In French the verb bouillir means to boil.
Bouquet Garni (or bundle of herbs) consists of parsley, bay leaves, a sprig of thyme, and whole peppercorns, wrapped in one of the outside layers of a leek, a large teaball looking device you can buy in a Chinese grocer or in a little cheesecloth bag tied with string (called a "sachet d'epice"). You can just throw it all in the pot separately but if you do this you cannot take out the bouquet garni part way through the cooking process if the flavours get too strong. You will be straining and then clarifying the end result.
Broth is a basic soup made from stock where the solid pieces of flavouring meat or fish, along with some vegetables, remain. It is often made more substantial by adding starches such as rice, barley or pulses.
Consommé is a type of clear soup made from richly flavoured stock or bouillon that has been clarified traditionally through a fining process usually involving egg white protein forming a 'raft' which filters the impurities from the stock. Also consommé (technically an essence) can be made using the newly discovered (2004) freeze (gelatine) filtration method. Using this technique you can obtain a clear liquid from any puréed liquid. Fruit, stock, vegetables, bread, cookies even coffee since the matrix formed using this method traps all particulate matter (impurities) giving a clear liquid.
Fond is French for stock. Stock is produced by simmering raw ingredients in water or a mixture of wine and water, after which the solids are removed, leaving a thin, highly-flavoured liquid. Classic stocks are made from beef, veal, chicken, fish and vegetables.
Glaces – Glazes Are prepared by reducing a finished strained stock to a thick (think cream) consistency. This needs to be done slowly at a simmer and skimmed as required. As the amount reduces it needs to be transferred to smaller and smaller pots. Five litres of stock can be reduced to as little as a quarter of a litre (250 millilitres). The glaze can be heated and a small amount of butter can be whisked in for a lovely sauce.
Jus is a rich, lightly reduced stock used as a sauce for roasted meats. Many of these are started by deglazing the roasting pan, then reducing to achieve the rich flavour desired.
Mirepoix is a combination of chopped onions or leeks, carrots and celery in the ratio 2:1:1 by weight, it adds a lovely fresh note to soups. A white mirepoix is onions or leeks and celery. Some recipes use the peels, stalks, etc. of the mirepiox vegetables these must be of excellent quality or the result will be affected. If you add other vegetables to your mirepoix this changes it from a mirepoix to a bowl of finely chopped vegetables. To make 500 grams (1 pound) of mirepoix use 2 medium onions, 2 medium carrots and 2 large (12 inch/30 cm) celery ribs. To make 500 grams (1 pound) of white mirepoix use 4 medium onions and 4 large celery ribs.
Mirepoix has an 'evil' twin it is an aggressive flavour base for soups and consommés it is called pinçage (pen-sazsh) and it is all about darkness – you slowly cook mirepoix (with the addition of tomato paste (just enough to coat the vegetables) for more sweetness, balancing tartness, and oomph) to concentrate, soften and caramelise the sugars for an incredibly complex brown flavour.
Raft a mixture consisting of finely chopped vegetables and minced (ground) meat with egg whites whisked vigorously into simmering broth and cooked over a low heat so that the proteins coagulate and form a 'raft' on the surface that traps the impurities (but not the flavour) of the broth thereby clarifying it.
Remouillage is French for rewetting, which refers to a stock made by re-simmering bones that have been used to make stock once already. Restaurants who make their own stock often start off the new stock with a remouillage.
Soup is a food that is made by combining and cooking ingredients such as meat and vegetables with stock, juice, water or another liquid.
Sweat to cook (chopped vegetables etc) covered over medium heat until soft but not coloured. This process intensifies the flavours.
Vegetables As we discussed earlier good ingredients make good stock. The fresher and tastier the vegetable, the better the stock. Unless you particularly want a strong flavour in your stock strong tasting vegetables such as fennel can change the flavour of a stock in an unwanted way. Use of starchy vegetables will ruin your stock, potatoes, pumpkin, etc have no place in a clear stock.

Types of Stock
• Fond Brun or Estouffade, or brown stock. The brown colour is achieved by roasting bones and mirepoix. This adds to the flavour. Tomato is added to help break down the connective tissue so the stock will set and to add flavour. Any type of bone can be used or a combination e.g beef and chicken.
• Fond Blanc, or white stock, is made by using raw bones. The bones are not roasted, chicken bones are the most common for fond blanc. For an even clearer soup no carrot is used.
• Fumet - Fish/seafood stock is made with fish bones or the shell sucks of prawn or lobster and finely chopped mirepoix. Fish stock should be cooked for 30 – 40 minutes at the most or it gets bitter. This is caused by the bones overcooking. August Escoffier uses pounded caviar in one of his fish consommés. Concentrated fish stock is called "fish fumet."
• Vegetable stock is made only of vegetables.
• Master stock is a special Chinese stock used primarily for poaching meats, flavoured with soy sauce, sugar, ginger, garlic, and other aromatics. It would make an interesting addition for a consommé though.

Preparing stock

For best results there are rules.
• Start your stock in cold water. Hot water seals everything in including the flavour. Even if you have fried/roasted the bones for flavour use cold water. After adding the cold water it is vital that you do not put the lid back on the pot – this can cause cloudiness.
• Stock should be simmered over a low heat, very gently. The bubbles should just break the surface. If it is boiled, it might became cloudy (maybe that's where I stuffed up?)
• After you add the cold water DO NOT STIR IT. You will need to keep the bones etc covered. After the stock has started to simmer if you need to add water use hot (not boiling) water.
• Your stock is only going to be a good as your ingredients. A good stock is made from carefully selected meats and vegetables not from the kitchen scraps and rubbish. Fresh meat and bones make better stock. You can use leftover carcasses from your roast chicken if you want to. The stock will be better if you keep the fat to a minimum. You will need a ratio of at least 1 part meat and bones to 2 parts water (by volume). You can increase that ratio to 1:1 if you want. The flavour of the stock comes from the cartilage and connective tissue in the bones. Connective tissue has collagen in it, which gets converted into gelatine that thickens the liquid.
• Stock made from bones needs to be simmered for longer than stock made from meat. If you are tempted to get those big beef leg bones with marrow don’t bother. The marrow in them is a type of fat which will make your stock cloudy. Bones from young animals contain a higher percentage of connective tissues than older ones. This type of connective tissue is what makes a rich, full bodied stock that will gel beautifully if you want a cold stock.
• Chop the bones (or get the butcher to do it) into small pieces. Wash the bones.
• Remove as much fat and marrow as you can. Fat will make your stock cloudy and make it a lot harder to clarify the stock. If you are not cooking the bones in the oven first blanch them in boiling water for 3 minutes. Strain and proceed.
• The meat or bones (cooked in the oven, raw or blanched), vegetables and flavourings go in with the cold water. After it has gently reached boiling point reduce the heat to a low simmer and skim off as much fat and scum as you can. The fat, scum and foam is what contributes to the cloudiness and may make the stock bitter. If more water is required during the cooking process use hot (not boiling) water.
• For a base stock fry your vegetables in organic rice bran, grapeseed or sunflower oil. I prefer the rice bran oil since it has a higher smoking point and little to no flavour. However if you are using the freeze method use cold pressed olive oil or butter if you are not confident in your skimming abilities.
• Don’t add any salt. As the stock reduces it will become too salty. Season the dish not the stock.
• The herbs and spices you use will flavour the finished product. If I want a good base stock just use a bouquet garni and add any other flavours later.
• Cool the stock as quickly as you can. I put the whole pot in a laundry tub and run cold water around it
• The type of meat and bones is optional. A mixture of different types of bone can be used or just one type i.e. all chicken or beef or a mixture. For the seafood stock a mixture of bones and prawn or lobster shells can be used depending on the result required.
• When cooking your stock it is best if it is cooked for the recommended time. Over-cooking can result in a deterioration of flavour and under-cooking does not allow time for the flavours to develop fully.

Below you will find amounts for 5 litres (5 quarts) of water the amounts of ingredients are a guide. Ideally you want your pot to be one third to half full of bones and then add your vegetables and other flavourings and then add your cold water. The ingredients are a recommendation only.

Fonds Type
De Legumes
Vegetable stock
Cooking time 40 minutes - 1 hour
400 gm (14 oz) onions, about 3 medium
400 gm (14 oz) carrots, about 6 medium
200 gm (7 oz) celery, about 4 large ribs
2 leeks
50 gm (1¾ oz) dried mushrooms, about 12
250 gm (9 oz) tomatoes, about 2 medium
200 gm (7 oz) broccoli stalk, 2 large stalks
bouquet garni

Now on to the type of filtration you want to use for your consommé (I chose the egg white one so I've deleted the rest)

First there is the traditional method using egg white. Try not to gag at the following picture because this is what it looks like in action (although apparently not quite correct action, given my end result):

Protein Raft Filtration

To get most of the fat out of a stock, you can simply chill it. The fat will harden and float on top of the stock where it can be scooped off easily. A fat separator, which looks like a big measuring cup with a spout at the bottom, allows you to pour the stock out while trapping the fat. Or you can carefully drag a piece of really top quality paper towel over the top of the stock.

To completely clarify stock, use the following method:
• Prepare your extra meat, vegetables and flavourings as per the recipe (below)
• Beat egg whites to soft peaks, one for each litre/quart of stock. Combine with your flavourings.
• A pot that is higher than it is round improves your results, because the consommé percolates through the raft in a more efficient way (I transferred my stock back to the smaller pot once strained for this reason)
• Stir the mixture into the hot stock and bring it back to a bare simmer, do not let it boil. The egg-whites will coagulate, rise, and take any particles and cloudiness out of the stock.
• Keep a close eye on the consommé (push the coagulated egg whites to the side a bit to see) let it simmer 10 to 45 minutes.
• The raft is a delicate thing. It is vital it doesn’t break apart (if it breaks apart it will all mix back into the soup and you’ll have to strain it and start again with just the egg whites.). You want to bring the liquid up to a simmer very slowly. Keep a close eye on it. Once the raft is substantial, break a little hole in it if there isn’t already one.
• As the consommé simmers, you will see bubbles and foam come up through your hole. Skim it off and discard. When the bubbles stop coming and the consommé looks clear underneath, then you’re ready to take it out.
• Removing the consommé from underneath the raft is another nerve racking procedure. You want to break as little of the raft as possible, but you have to get underneath it to remove the liquid.
• Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for another ten minutes.
• Enlarge your hole with a ladle and spoon it all out as gently as you can. Once you’ve removed all of the consommé from the pot discard the raft (you cannot use for another purpose). You could try siphoning it out. Some chef’s say this is possible but they are using great big pots or steam kettles. I haven’t tried this so good luck and let me know if you do it and it works.

Recipe No. 1 Vegetarian French Onion Soup/Consommé

(For a vegan option do not use the egg white technique use the freezing method).

Step 1 - Stock
• 5 litres (5 quarts) water
• 400 gm (14 oz) onions, about 4 medium
• 400 gm (14 oz) carrots, about 6 medium
• 200 gm (7 oz) celery, about 4 large ribs
• 2 leeks
• 50 gm (1¾ oz) dried mushrooms, about 12
• 250 gm (9 oz) tomatoes, about 2 medium
• 200 gm (7 oz) broccoli stalk, two large stalks
• bouquet garni

Step 2 – enriching your stock to a bouillon
• 80 gm (5½ tablespoons) (3 oz) butter
• 1 kg (2 lbs) brown onions, sliced in rings
• 20gm (1½ tablespoons) (¾ oz) brown sugar
• 60 ml (4 tablespoons) cognac or port
• 200 ml (¾ cup + 1 tablespoon) red or white wine
• 3 sprigs fresh thyme
• 2 fresh bay leaves
• 30 gm (2 tablespoons) (1 oz) Dijon mustard
• 2 litres (2 quarts) mushroom/vegetable stock

Step 3 – Consommé (Using the egg white raft technique)
• 1 clove garlic - finely minced
• 500 gm (1 lb) dark coloured field mushrooms
• 2 large egg whites – beaten
• 1 cup crushed ice

Step 1 – Stock
1. Sweat the vegetables in the oil or butter until soft.
2. Put ingredients in a stockpot and cover with cold water.
3. Cover with a lid, then bring to a boil on medium-high heat.
4. Reduce heat to medium-low. Simmer uncovered, skimming foam from surface, for 1-2 hours
5. Strain stock through a muslin-lined sieve. Discard solids.

Step 2 – Soup
1. Melt butter in a large saucepan and add the onions.
2. Add sugar and a little salt to help the caramelisation process.
3. Cook over medium to low heat until the onions caramelise to dark brown. Stir regularly. This can take hours so don’t be tempted to increase the heat to speed it up.
4. Deglaze the pan with cognac, port and wine and then pop in a couple of sprigs of thyme, bay leaves and the mustard and cook together.
5. Pour in the stock and reheat.
6. To make this soup into a consommé proceed to Step 3.
7. For the soup - taste it and adjust the seasonings. (For Australians you can add ½ to 1 teaspoon of vegemite or marmite at this point if you want a little more flavour kick.)
8. It is now time to either strain out the solid bits or blend the whole lot or if you like chunky bits don’t bother. Ladle into hot bowls.
9. Top a thick slice of bread that will fit into the bowl with grated tasty or gruyere cheese, a pinch of pepper and chopped thyme and grill the top until the cheese is melted and the crust is golden. Put these on top of your hot bowl of soup.

Step 3 – Consomme (clarified with egg whites)
1. Fry the mushrooms until brown and cooked. Allow any juices to cook off.
2. Add garlic and cook gently for 1 minute. You don’t want any burnt bits it will make your stock bitter.
3. Strain off any fat or remaining juices.
4. Allow the mushrooms to cool. (This is so your egg whites don’t cook).
5. Strain the soup to remove onions etc.
6. Place egg whites in a bowl. This is the time to taste your stock and decide if it needs salt and pepper. Add seasoning to the egg whites.
7. Whisk the whites to a bubbly froth and add the crushed ice.
8. Add to the cooked mushrooms. Mix together.
9. Add this mixture to the simmering stock. Whisk for a slow count of three.
10. Let it heat slowly back to a simmer. Don’t stir it again.
11. The raft is a delicate thing. It is vital it doesn’t break apart (if it breaks apart it will all mix back into the soup and you’ll have to start again with the egg whites), you want to bring it up to a simmer very slowly. Keep a close eye on it. I try to push the middle back so I get a good hole. Once the raft is substantial, break a little hole in it if there isn’t already one.
12. As the consommé simmers, you will see bubbles and foam, come up through your hole. Skim it off and throw it away. When the bubbles stop coming and the consommé looks clear underneath, then you’re ready to take it out. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for ten minutes.
13. Removing the consommé from underneath the raft is another nerve racking procedure. You want to break as little of the raft as possible, but you have to get underneath it to remove the liquid.
14. Enlarge your hole with a ladle and spoon it all out as gently as you can. You can strain it if you want too but hopefully the liquid is clear.

Once you’ve removed all of the consommé from the pot discard the raft. If you have never made a consommé before Victory dances and loud cheering are totally appropriate.

15. Now you are ready to serve. You can add a crouton as you would for the soup but I would put the crouton on the side so as not to interfere with the beauty of a bowl of crystal clear consommé

And now to the brioche (my favourite part of this challenge, as it didn't involve extensive chopping or worrying over an egg-white raft).

As mentioned before, I'm scared of using yeast, but am trying to break out of that fear. Mind you, it's nothing like my fear of cupcakes (and I have cupcakes planned for... whenever I have time to bake them... but they're gonna be soooo cuuuuute!) but it's still a fear. It became evident during this process that it's because I'm simply unfamiliar with the techniques involved in breadmaking, and what it's "supposed to" look like when it's "ready" to put aside to rise.

I used mum's Kenwood with the dough hook attachment, and three of us crowded around the bowl, watching it not do what we wanted it to. But I perservered and left it running, even though the Naysayers cried "Enough! Enough!" And I was right. So there. And now I'm all inspired to make more bread, and I'm dreaming of something herby and cheesy (this was a herb brioche).

I'll show you a picture of a slice of my brioche, before I finish off the brioche recipe with my braggy picture of the whole loaf. It really does look tasty. I did good.

Oh, and I sliced my hand as well as the bread. But nobody is suprised at that, are they...

The brioche recipe:

Herb and Garlic Brioche

• 2 cups (480 ml) (280 gm) (10 oz) all-purpose plain flour
• 2 teaspoons (10 ml) (7 gm) (¼ oz) active dry yeast
• 2 tablespoons (30 ml) (28 gm) (1 oz) granulated sugar
• ½ teaspoon (2½ ml) (3 gm) salt
• ½ cup (120 ml) milk, warm
• ½ cup (1 stick) (120 ml) (115 gm) (4 oz) unsalted butter, softened
• 3 large eggs
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) (1 gm) chopped chives
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) (1 gm) chopped parsley
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) (2 gm) Italian mixed herbs
• 1 teaspoon (5 ml) (2 gm) freshly crushed garlic

1. In a medium-sized bowl, stir together the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt.
2. Slowly mix the warm milk, butter, herbs, garlic and 2 of the eggs into the flour mixture
3. Knead until the dough is smooth. The dough is ready to rise when it is completely smooth and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
4. Cover the bowl and allow the dough to rise until it is doubled in size.
5. Transfer the dough from the bowl onto a floured work surface and punch it down a few times.
6. Finely chop the fresh herbs and mix with the garlic.
7. Press the dough out into a rectangle then spread with the chopped herbs.
8. Roll up like a swiss roll and place on a lined baking tray.
9. Cover the pan and allow the dough to rise until it is doubled in size.
10. Preheat the oven to moderately hot 200°C/400°F/gas mark 6.
11. Remove the dough covering, gently brush the loaf with the remaining beaten egg, bake for 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to moderate 180°C/350°F/gas mark 4 and bake for an additional 25 minutes, until the brioche is golden brown. Allow it to cool for 5 minutes in the pan, and then transfer it to a wire cooling rack

12. Marvel at how awesome your brioche looks, and then proceed to eat half the loaf while it's still warm, slathered in butter. It was delightfully soft and springy, with a sort of flaky outside. It reminded me quite a lot of bread you get at Vietnamese bakeries, which is unsurprising given the French influence.

The verdict? I wouldn't make the consumme again. It was a very, very tasty French Onion consumme but also very, very time consuming and not worth it in my opinion. I would however be far more likely to shell out money for a consumme at a restaurant, now that I actually know what goes into it and what amazing and delicate flavours it has. But I spent an entire Sunday on this particular challenge, and given how much I have going on in my life at present, that was hard. If ever I wish to make a consumme I shall cheat and get my vegetable stock from a catering supplier and turn it into soup and then consumme, rather than mucking about with all the initial chopping and boiling. But the brioche - well, that's another story. Have a crack. It's well worth it. And then serve it up on an awesome 80's tray - perhaps I ought to have added a doily :)

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

Book Review: We of the Never Never, by Mrs Aeneas (Jeannie) Gunn

Well, I finally changed my settings so that I can post directly from email, but it’s freaking me out a little bit because I’m not sure how the formatting will go. I also had a bad dream last night that I posted something highly inappropriate, forgetting that I’d changed my “email to draft” setting to “email to publish”. Eep! So best I read these email posts verrrry carefully, and make sure I don’t email half-finished posts and ideas to myself, believing them to be sitting safely with all my other drafts, when really they’re out there in their incomplete (and possibly inappropriate) glory for all the world to see!!!

Finally! A book I feel more enthusiastic about, and as such I am going to make more than a half-arsed attempt at reviewing it, as per my previous two (one of which I kind of sort of didn’t read – check out the review for the Awakening. Also, not the one I originally picked up to be my next read. I had decided upon Murder at Mansfield Park, and in preparation for it, assuming it to be much like Pride and Prejudice and Zombies insofar as the storyline and characters would remain intact but that frequent zombie references would be thrown in (“braaaaaaaains” Yeah, y’all know who you are!), I did a little preparation by way of re-reading Mansfield Park.

What a fool I was!

Murder at Mansfield Park was, when I put it down about half a chapter in, absolutely NOTHING like the original and was so very confusing to me when read hot on the heels of Ms Austen’s creation. Mainly, the characters are all scrambled up and the family trees are all over the place. Thus far it seems a little ham-handed as the roles are more or less reversed, Fanny Price now being the wealthy heiress to be revered (with several character traits of Mary Crawford) rather than the sweet, impoverished cousin to be pitied. DON’T BE ME!!! RE-READING MANSFIELD PARK FIRST WILL SCREW WITH YOUR HEAD, VERY, VERY BADLY!

So I decided that the most sensible course of action would be to pick another couple of books of a completely different genre and clear my mind of the original roles the Mansfield Park characters play, before re-attempting to proceed with reading it. The first of these books was We of the Never Never, the second is The Ballad of Les Darcy (Peter Fitzsimons) and the third is Gone With the Wind (Margaret Mitchell). The latter two are still on the go (I have a “weekday” book and a “weekend” book; suffice it to say, the “weekday” book is always slim enough to fit into my laptop bag with minimal inconvenience, so I’ll give you one guess as to which of the two is my “weekend” one!), but We of the Never Never was read, enjoyed and finished in a couple of days.

I picked it up for a few dollars at a market, and the title caught my eye as I vaguely recalled that there had been a film adaptation of it and had always wanted to watch it (older-style film/TV adaptations of Australian texts such as On Our Selection and All The Rivers Run are a big favourites of mine).

We of the Never Never is based on a true story – it is more or less an autobiography over the course of one year (the year being 1902), written in the style of a novel rather than a diary with names changed. It was written by the new wife of a man who buys a share in Elsey cattle station in the Northern Territory (which in modern geographic terms was somewhere near Mataranka). Much to the dismay of the stockmen on the station and the horror of the ladies in Darwin, he opts to bring the “missus” out there with him, and that is how Jeannie Gunn came to be in the Never Never, in a place with no roads or bridges, and just a telegraph line running past their front “gate”, some forty miles from the homestead.

The book chronicles the ins and outs of station life, including musters; camps; dealings with the erratic behaviour of the domestic help (being a dodgy Chinese cook who is later replaced by a far superior Chinese cook, and several Aboriginal maids); death and illness; improving the homestead (which involved cutting and processing timber by hand); the people who visit the station as they pass through; and the privations caused by the isolation and the challenges brought by both the Wet and the Dry.
If you’re not into Australiana like I am (I’m a bit of a junkie for any book about life in the outback, and the older it is the better, probably because they tell it like they saw it and are not frightened of voicing an opinion on just about anything, a characteristic that I admire. They are also generally written with a greater regard for grammar than their modern counterparts, which I appreciate!) this probably won’t float your boat. But the day-to-day lives of these pioneers, who went through hell and high water to shape our country has always captured my imagination and always will. It is written in a style that, whilst a little quaint in the vintage of the language, makes you feel like you’re part of the excitement. The author’s shrewd observations of human nature coupled with her (apparently rare, in that time) ability to poke fun at herself endears the reader to the author.

It’s also very interesting from an historical perspective. I suspect many a feminist would be up in arms at the way the Missus is spoken to, and about, by the people on the station, generally in terms of her (in)capabilities, so here comes my anti-feminist rant. I think it was okay that they didn’t want her there or poked fun at her or expected to have to look after her. Let’s face it – she was a city girl, thrown into the bush with zero preparation. She was hampered by long skirts and long hair (seriously, has anyone been to Darwin in summer, or any time of year for that matter? Try doing it in a heavy floor-length skirt, petticoats, long sleeved shirts, hats, gloves and boots!) and city expectations and had a lot to learn in a very short period of time.

I think that it’s okay that they didn’t want her there initially, because the respect the stockmen had for women meant that they knew she may have other (and probably mysterious!) needs that they weren’t accustomed to catering for (for starters, I’m sure, no more peeing on trees or taking shirts off at will), and that they knew they would have to curb their behaviour and language around her. I work in the construction industry and have on multiple occasions very clearly busted the boys talking about something filthy, because they will fall silent as I approach. And you know what? I’m okay with that. In fact, I really appreciate it. I don’t need to hear about their conquests or desires. Eeuw. The stockmen were also concerned that she would be the sort of missus to try and change the way the station was run, or the sort who would be “too good” to lend a hand, which were both quite legitimate fears. Luckily for them, she was neither of those things.

I think it’s okay that they poked fun at her, because she really did have some very odd (although unsurprising) ideas about life in the Never Never before they “Educated” her. She poked fun at herself, too. And she learnt a lot, with a sense of humour. It didn’t mean they thought she was stupid, it meant they acknowledged she was green.

And I think it’s okay that they perceived her to be a weak little thing that needed to be taken care of. She was a five-foot-nothing city girl (from Carlton) with no idea how to survive out there, and who wasn’t hardened to physical labour or tough conditions. If I were her, especially back then, I would love it if six men and a tribe of Aboriginals decided that they were my personal protectors and kept an eye on me.

Maybe I see it this way because I am quite often the only woman in an all-male working environment, and I encounter chivalry on a daily basis. I don’t think it’s sexist to hold open a door, or help me carry something, or be polite to me, or buy me a drink, or offer to see me home instead of letting me wander the streets alone at night. It’s manners, and consideration of others, like they had back in 1902, and it’s sad that it’s dying out. Perhaps it’s controversial to say, but I can nearly guarantee the divorce rate would be lower if men and women were both a bit more old-school. Jeannie Gunn’s marriage didn’t work out because Mr Gunn died of malarial dysentery shortly after 1902, not because they fought over the remote or he forgot to ask if she needed a hand cleaning the gutters. Maybe if more men took a leaf from this book, and more women swallowed their misplaced pride and accepted help when it is wanted or needed and not just when it is demanded, we’d be better off. I can’t say I blame the men, mind you, because they keep getting abused for trying to be considerate and then abused when they’re not. Poor bastards.

Heh heh, way to turn a book review into a rant on the shortcomings of modern society!

That is all.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

101 Things Update - Weeks 7 and 8

Well, as I mentioned in my previous post, life has gotten in the way over the last couple of weeks with an horrific combination of work and personal dramas, which is why I haven't posted anything. I may write about it one day but right now I just need to sit still for a while.

#35 - I took a hiatus from the whole excercising four times per week thing, and, for reasons I may discuss at a different date, the goals on that one will change a little. But I'm not feeling terriby unfit as a result. Heh heh heh. Famous last words, no doubt - we'll see how I REALLY feel when I hit the gym on Monday! I'm a little scared, truth be told... I also haven't really kept up my food diary but I'll see if I can think back and remember. For someone with such appalling recall of important information, I'm quite skilled at telling you what I ate last Tuesday!

#65 - To read all my unread books before buying more. The next one on my list was Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. You can check out my review here.

#51 - To visit a theme park. Sea World! In the rain!!! YEE-HAH!!! (no, seriously, I enjoyed it despite the rain. I got to touch critters!)

I have a bit of an idea up my sleeve to check a few items off in one fell swoop, mostly cooking ones. I'm in the sort of frame of mind right now where I have this drive to achieve things. We shall see. A lot will depend on my energy levels, and they have been substandard of late, which kind of thwarts my drive to achieve things. My energy levels have been SO substandard, in fact, that it's only 5:53pm on a Saturday as I write this, and I'm already entertaining thoughts of going to bed. I know it's sad but sometimes you've just got to look after yourself. Viv, I don't know if you read this, but if you do, sorry I'm not at your birthday drinkies. It's because I'm a sad old nanna who needs to take a break from it all, not because I don't love ya!

I've also realised that #87 to #91 as well as #101 are in progress: Listen more attentively; Interrupt less readily; Write more neatly, no matter how much of a hurry I am in; Prepare properly for meetings; Be sufficiently auditable at any moment in time; Make friends with my cousins. I have a long way to go on all of those things, but I've made a start. The first few are the sum of little changes you make every day, and the latter was nudged along by my trip to Brisvegas, where I caught up with my aunty Glennis (not technically my aunty anymore, but she was 25 years ago and I always have and always will consider her to be a relative) and my cousins Darren and Annette. It was great to see them all.

Lastly, I popped off to the movies last night to keep myself sane, and saw Red Dog. It's one of those Aussie movies that tell a story in a fairly lighthearted way. It won't win any awards but I personally quite enjoy that style of movie. Also, I thought it only fair to share the following image with all the ladies out there (which had nothing whatsoever to do with the reason I went to see the movie in the first place *nods convincingly*):

Josh Lucas: Animal lover and all-around rugged hottie with the most excellent dimples and just the kind of cheeky smile that I love. Yum.

(You're welcome)

(Hi, Josh! *waves* Do you ever Google yourself to see what your stalkers fans say about you? If so, drop me a line to say hi cos I happen to think you're rather super!)

(Quiet. I'm in a delusional happy place. Leave me be.)

Book Review - Heart of Darkness, by Joesph Conrad

Well, here comes yet another half-arsed book review, because I honestly didn't really enjoy it all that much. It wasn't a bad read but I just didn't really see the point of the story, and that is something that bothers me in a book. My next review - Murder at Mansfield Park - is bound to be a little more exciting.

I like the way the story was set up - it began with a bunch of sailors swapping stories on deck whilst they waited for the tide to rise in the River Thames so that they could go out to sea, and this one guy tells the story of the time he spent in Africa.

Basically, due to family connections (which I didn't quite understand the significance of, and so it was confusing to me when everyone within "the company" treated him with deference because of it, because it all seems a bit superficial. Perhaps if I'd studied the book, as I was supposed to, I would have understood the significance of that part of the plot, but as it is I have no idea), he got himself a job in Africa.

Basically, he had to skipper a paddle steamer up into the African Congo. I'm not entirely sure at what point his mission became resurrecting a scuppered paddle steamer from the bottom of the river and taking it upstream to rescue some high-up bloke in the company (who everyone secretly hated) who was quite ill, but that's what it became about. The ill man had been making headway for the Company, and poaching ivory and turning natives into slaves left, right and centre, as were all the whites in the story. SPOILER ALERT! The guy dies in the end before they can get him medical attention, and so the sailor brings the guy's sweetheart some paperwork and tells her big fat lies about his final days to make her happy.

My guess is that if I'd studied the book, there would have been an essay question assigned as the major assessment task that asked what "Heart of Darkness" meant. I suspect that had I been paying more attention to the detail, my answer would be something about the relationship between the literal darkness - i.e. the black people in the heart of the Congo being poorly used by the whites (note that this book was written early last century, so I don't have to use PC language) - and the darkness in the hearts of the while people (Belgians?) who were pillaging Africa and its people at that time. (note: I just Wiki'd it and I'm not far off the mark. Click here for a somewhat more enthused and grammatically correct synopsis of the plot)

It's quite a short read - I was put off reading it for quite some time as thought it was longer than it really was, because my volume was published along with a whole lot of background information on people who actually travelled in the Congo, and the journals of Conrad himself who did actually skipper a paddle boat in the Congo - so it's not a total waste of time to read, but I believe you need to pay more attention to it than I did. The fact that it is probably semi-autobiographical makes it far more interesting, and makes the fact it's more of a description of the relationships between the people there, and not particularly driven by plot per se, make more sense. It was written by an Australian ex-pat (who I believe was born in Russia, extradited to Germany and then died, leaving young Joseph to sail about the world... but I may well be mixing up my authors!), which I think shows in his writing style, which I quite liked. It's just that it was a very odd, slightly meandering and pointless story, and I like my stories to go somewhere.

That is all.

101 Things #51 - Visit a Theme Park - Sea World

Well, as it turns out, I was in no way exaggerating when I mentioned the other week that the weather in Queensland was going to be appalling. My work trip to Brisvegas showed me that not only is "The Sunshine Coast" a total misnomer, but that it really is quite a bit like Vegas (not that I've been), or at least the Gold Coast is, and particularly Surfer's Paradise. I once heard the place described as Darwin's older, sluttier cousin. Snap.

Ooh! I smell sausages and potatos! Yum! Sorry, mum's cooking dinner and I got a little distracted. I haz the hungriez. Where was I?

Oh yeah, the appalling weather in Queensland. It sucked balls. Although, Sunday afternoon was quite pleasant, which is when I happened to be leaving. That'd be right. So obviously our trip to Sea World was a little damper than we had expected (which could more or less be blamed on me for my stupid flight times). Precisely, it was damp enough to be wearing awesome raincoats like Kaye's:

By which I mean, damp enough for KAYE to be wearing an awesome raincoat like Kaye's. It was quite a bargain, actually - $4 if I'm not much mistaken. At least she can re-use hers, unlike the droves of people wearing disposable ponchos from the gift shop. I personally was wearing my red one that I bought for South America, and Danielle was sporting an umbrella instead of a coat, which kind of makes sense in Queensland because the focus isn't so much on keeping warm.

It rained.

And it rained (check out the size of the rain drops).

And it rained.

And then we saw the awesome playground at Castaway Bay and decided to play on it, even though it was still raining (although, to be fair, it wasn't raining very hard at this point).

And then we got wetter than we had been before.

And then we decided we may as well go all in and get wetter still and so jumped on a ride. My bum was already wet so I figured it couldn't get any worse.


I'm the red blur at the front being doused with water. I already had a wet bum, and added a wet crotch to complete the look. It was awesome :)

The animals there were great - they had big aquariums filled with all sorts of critters, including sharks (here's some useless trivia for you - the Chinese word for shark is "shayu" which sounds kind of like shark, huh? And the "yu" bit means fish. And I'm going for yum cha tomorrow (sorry, my mind associates sharks with Chinese food. I know it's wrong but the connection is there. It doesn't mean I advocate eating shark fin, but I'd be lying if I said I'd never eaten a shark fin dumpling. That's right, I'm going straight to Tree Hugger Hell...but hey, at least I'm honest about it!))

...and rays...

... including BLU-RAYS!!! Geddit?? Heh heh. Seriously, I think it's a blue spotted (?ribbon tail?) ray or something. He saw me coming and chose to hide from me. I think I knew what I was thinking about his mate, the shark...

...and all manner of colourful fish. I particularly liked this fellow. I called him Freaky Fish (in my head) for reasons only known to myself. I think maybe it's cos he was so fat and looked like he was blowing raspberries at the world. I liked the cut of his jib.

They even let us touch some of them! I like touching critters. It makes me very happy. But I didn't get to touch the very coolest critter because I avoided eye contact with the guy up the front of the seal show, and so Danielle got called up.

I'm obviously insanely jealous. So that leads me to declare that it is the rays and not the seals which were the coolest critters there (Actually, I genuinely do think they were cooler. I have wandered about seal colonies down on Kangaroo Island for uni work, and they stink to high heaven. I have also sifted their poo (yes, really, and yes, I was wearing gloves, and yes, I had to keep fighting the urge to projectile vomit) to find out what they ate, specifically, ear bones from fish (again, yes, really - you can actually identify fish species from the shape of their ear bones, which seem to be the only bones that make it through the digestive process, and so by wandering about a seal colony, picking up poo in plastic bags and then basically straining them, you can figure out exactly what the seal has been eating). So I'm a little disenchanted with the pinniped genus, even if you can train them bring you large bags of money. Rays smell nicer (... I think?? I didn't really sniff one...) and appear to be less inclined to maul you... but that's another story for another day!).

To the rays! This one appears to have a hungry look about it. No wonder Kaye didn't much care for them, because it really does look like it's contemplating leaping out of the tank and attaching itself to your face and sucking your brains out of your nose, doesn't it Kaye... Kaye? Are you there? You can't run, Kaye. The Ray is Watching...

And then feeding time began. The photos aren't very clear but I got to touch quite a few of them. They have this amazing texture - kind of soft, and a little slimy but I would be more inclined to call it velvety, only wet. Some are more rubbery, and have little bumps around the top of their fin. I wanted to keep one but I don't have a bath tub and I don't think one would much care to live in a bath tub even if I had one, and I don't think they'd be terribly good at cuddling, which is what we all want in a pet, really.

I also touched a sea cucumber - they're quite soft, and some have little bumps, and for something that looks like a large, decorated turd, they're really quite mobile!

And I touched a starfish (or was it a sea star? I don't know whether there is actually a difference. Wiki, bastion of scientific accuracy, says no. Does anyone have a more authorative opinion on this?). I told this fella that I had dissected one of his mates back at university, and I could tell by his surly silence that he was not at all impressed. But he let me touch him anyway.

Basically, touching critters = very happy Nessie. I really am that easy to please. Seriously. If they has somehow incorporated a petting zoo into maths class, I would have achieved far better grades.

The dolphins were also quite amazing. The kid in front of us was supposed to go touch one, but then his mole of an older sister (or it may have been his cousin) got over-excited and ran down before he could even get to his feet. The poor little tyke was so disappointed.
The fact it was raining was kind of a blessing, I think, because it meant that there weren't a bajillion people wandering around, getting in my way, and it also meant that I didn't get sunburnt. Score!

We also saw penguins, both swimming

...and waddling...

... and saw some polar bears...

... who decided that it was all a bit too hard for them.

All in all, $80 to basically go to the zoo is quite a lot of money, but I didn't resent it as I did the $44 you pay to get into Tooronga Zoo in Sydney, which is odd considering it was nearly double the cost. It must have been good! If you got one of those 3 Park Super Pass things which I think are about $140 it would certainly be decent value. Touching the critters alone made it totally worth the trip, although in the future I'd probably pay the squillion dollars it costs to dive with the animals.

Also, the gift shop totally miffed me - there wasn't much marine stuff in it, let alone Sea World branded stuff. Most of it was random, ubiquitous crap such as friendship bracelets, thongs, stuffed toys of all sorts of animals (not just seals, dolphins etc), key rings with your name and random decorations such as hearts, flowers and butterflies on them (WTF?? None of those things are from the sea!!!) and Dora the Explorer products (only a couple of which had any Sea World branding or some vague mention of marine life or beaches on them). I think their branding/marketing department must be smoking drugs. It's also likely that the work experience kid was told to do the ordering on the same day that the marketing department were out the back, sparking up. Seriously. Most of the stuff there **just didn't make sense** and there was NOTHING there that caught my attention. Except perhaps the stuffed fish toy. It looked like Freaky Fish, only orange. I can see already that my kids are going to have somewhat un-orthodox soft toys...

This is where I feel the need to add the tag "rant" to this post. I loved the animals - don't get me wrong - and I had a fantastic day out with my my Home Girls, but Australian tourist attractions have absolutely no idea what they are doing. Value for money is low and so is the quality of the products and services they provide. No wonder nobody comes here. Tourism Australia shouldn't be asking "where the bloody hell are ya", they should be knowing that nobody is bloody well here because we cost too much, give too little and are too hard to get to!

But I'm still glad I went :)