Saturday, 25 February 2012

Book Review - Possession, by A.S. Byatt

This Booker Prize-winner has been sitting on my shelf since third or perhaps fourth year uni, when I enrolled in a particular English subject, bought the books and then was forced to change subjects when one of my Science lectures moved. So a few of the books on my 101 Things list are from that subject, including Homer's Odyssey (I never know if I spell that correctly) and Sebald's (???) Rings of Saturn.

I think the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow was on the cover, apparently in the throes of passion, really turned me off. I'm not a big fan of ol' Gwyneth, and I'm not entirely sure why... but I do think she's dumb for calling her kids Apple and Moses... ot maybe it's that pathetic, helpless expression she gets that really irks me. Anyway, apparently I DO judge a book by its cover!

Wiki always explains it better, but the book starts off with Roland, an English literary scholar finding an apparently previously-unseen draft of what appears to be a love letter inside a copy of a book that had once belonged to the (fictional) 19th-century poet, Randolph Henry Ash, who wrote said book. Roland realises what a significant find this letter is, because the poet had been happily married for many years and something like this could completely alter the interpretation of the poet's works. He decides to keep his find as close to his chest as possible until he has chased down the mystery, and, when he discovers who the letter was written to (a fellow-poet, Christabelle LaMotte), is forced to appeal to Maude, a LaMotte scholar, to aid him in his quest to find out what really happened between LaMotte and Ash.

Perhaps predictably, things very slowly heat up between Roland and Maude as they trace the progression of the relationship between Ash and LaMotte. It took me quite a while to get into the large slabs of poetry, but once some context was provided to what was going on in their lives and I felt sure of a reward, I found myself drawn into the poetry, trying to decipher it. By the time the Ash/LaMotte affair was full-blown I was utterly hooked, and the novel ends with a delightfully geeky showdown in what is essentially an unlikely collection of scholars taking the law into their own hands in order to protect Ash's grave from American collectors, determined to obtain some Ash relics at any cost.

It'll take you a while to get through, but I highly recommend Possession, preferably to be read in winter, snuggled up in bed.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Good Thing I Like Jelly and Ice Cream

Because of my little adventure involving a helicopter over the new year, I was booked in to an appointment with a new specialist last Friday. He did a check on Zappy, and then confirmed what the nurses in the hospital had said - that he would want to upgrade Zappy for a better model.

To explain a little bit about my condition (Long QT Syndrome), I basically have an electrical fault that means that my heart doesn't beat correctly sometimes. Apparently the slower my heart rate, the longer the Q-T interval (you know how when you see a heart rate monitor on TV there's a big spike and then a little spike? Well the interval between the big and little spikes is called the Q-T interval (Q and T are the names of different components of the spikes)), the more likely it is that my heart will play up, which initially begins with atrial fibrillation (the atrium - the first bit that beats - spazzing out, which is an invconvenient but non-fatal condition), but in my case, can continue through to the ventricle and cause the ventricle to fibrillate (twitch/flutter, i.e. not pump blood properly) which can become a fatal arrhythmia if it doesn't correct itself. Yep, those 25 years I was untreated I was pretty bloody lucky not to be laid out on a slab!

Anyway, Zappy Mk1 has a single lead into the ventricle, to allow him to defibrillate my heart, should the ventricle "beat" at a rate in excess of about 210bpm. Your average person may think that a little risky, but considering the dose of beta-blockers I am on, I would be hard pressed to raise my heartrate that high through exercise, so it safe to assume that if my heart is beating that fast, that it's not beating at all - it's twitching.
Source - Yale Medical Group
The difference between this diagram and reality is that Zappy is on my right hand side, and the lead runs through my right subclavian vein, not my left. I had a clot in my left bicep at the time of implantation (due to inflammation from a canula), so they weren't keen to further obstruct blood flow on that side.

Oh, and there's another difference - my boobs are bigger. Slightly.

Zappy Mk2 will also have a lead in the atrium, so that he can pace the atrium whenever it drops below 70 or so beats per minute (which for me is all the time - my resting heartrate is rarely above about 50bpm, and my overnight heart rate has been known to drop to 28bpm, which, as anyone who knows how little I resemble an Olympic athlete would realise, is a little odd), and therefore hopefully prevent my Q-T interval from being so long, and therefore prevent the majority of the ectopic beats and therefore have a lower risk of a cardiac event. That means that, even though there will be a lead in the vetricle in case things get that bad, the chance of things getting bad enough for a zap to be delivered will be much lower.
So that's about it, really. The surgery is pencilled in for a fortnight from now. Suffice it to say I'm none to pleased at the prospect of being cut open. And, ever since I Googled Melbourne Private Hospital and saw a picture of someone on the operating table (actually, it was a picture of a bunch of surgeons and what I assume was a person under a whole lot of medical drapes...), I am totally freaked out. And I'm going to be a right proper nanna with a pacemaker now, and I hate the idea of a machine beating my heart for me. Hate it hate it hate it.

But I've been feeling really ordinary for the last couple of weeks, and feeling quite wonky for no reason, and being tired all the time, and being scared all the time, and continually reaching to feel my pulse when I don't feel quite right (because that's TOTALLY going to prevent me from ending up unconscious on the floor...), and panting when I walk a block on flat ground to the supermarket, and I hate that, too. Hate it hate it hate it.

So I guess, when I weigh that up with the surgery, and add the fact I will quite likely be fed jelly and icecream, I guess it makes it worthwhile. Jelly's good like that.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Breakfast of Champions

Can more of my friends have kids, please? I want to be able to eat this more than two or three times per year...

Cupcake Decorating Course

A little while back, my Regional Manager and I discovered a mutual love for all things baked (making AND eating!), so on the weekend just passed we participated in a cupcake decorating course at Marg and Maree's in Heidelberg, Victoria. I had no idea they existed until quite recently, and I'm really glad that I stumbled across them. Not only are they relatively close to home, but they offer shorter, cheaper baking and decorating courses for those who are not so keen to spend several weeks running learning skills. From what I can see a lot of them are bite-sized classes (pardon the delicious pun!).

The course mainly focused on basic decorating techniques and provided us with ready-made icings, but also gave a bit of information on how to make those icings. I'd be lying if I said I would never be tempted to dive in and buy pre-made products, but I do like to learn to make things properly myself before resorting to the cheaty way.

We learnt about piping melted chocolate, baker's icing (which is similar to what you find on doughnuts or coffee scrolls) and American-style buttercream. It wasn't about the fine detail like you see with royal icing; it was about simple, effective, readily-replicated techniques.

First we were taught to pipe melted dark and white (with oil-based red/pink colouring in it) into shapes. We used templates for the dark chocolate ones but soon enough you learn to make them free-hand. As the instructor Maree said, once you take it off the template, nobody will know the difference anyway!

We were also taught to melt compound chocolate in the microwave - hitherto I have burnt it but I think I will be more confident about it in the future.

Next up, we glazed a cupcake with baker's icing, which was really easy and only requires a little judgement regarding how much icing to put on without it running over the edges.

We were also taught to make shapes with sugarpaste, including hearts and butterflies, which were placed between sticks to allow them to set with their wings up. Cute!

Then the piping began (I wish I had pics of the practice runs on baking paper, but I don't because I was - scandal - busy practicing piping! So you'll have to use your imagination) - big stars,

little stars and random squiggles (aka cornelli lace, which I have royally stuffed up in the past),

big swirls,

(notice the glitter? Special edible glitter, of course!)
leaves (I wish I could say I made the flower myself, but alas I did not... but the leaves were jolly well hard enough!)

and ruffles (which you'd think I'd be better at after attempting the ruffle cake, but no).

And then we put them all together in various ways, and they were so pretty.

I really wish I'd done this sooner! I still don't have much of a visually creative streak, but I am actually beginning to think that it's something I am capable of - once I know what's out there. I'm that way with most things - I need to understand the mechanics of it before I can freestyle, and I firmly believe that, whilst some people are naturals, most people require a lot of practice. And I'm one of them!

If you're a bit of a baking enthusiast I highly recommend getting a little guidance with decorating. YouTube and the interwebs in general are great for picking up information, but nothing quite beats a real-life instructor.

Tuesday, 14 February 2012

The Daring Kitchen: Flipping Fried Patties! (Zucchini, Carrot, Chick Pea and Sweet Potato Fritters)

I was ever so pleased when I discovered that this month's Daring Cooks challenge was to make fritters. The last few have been quite, well, challenging. I know that's the whole point - to extend yourself and add to your culinary skills - but once in a while it's nice to have something quick and simple that you can do some serious improv on with what is on hand rather than having to dedicate four hours of your already-busy weekend to locating ingredients and preparing and cooking something quite complex.

Don't get me wrong - I do like to learn new things and make impressive dishes, but this month's challenge is more my style of cooking, and I generally leave the fancy stuff to the realms of baked goods. Like the time I made Sweetapolita's Ruffle Cake. I think I also enjoyed the fact that I didn't feel like I needed to read every single word on the information sheet in order to successfully complete the recipe, or freak the heck out about doing somethign wrong. Which I think means I will always be placed squarely in the "cook" corner, and not the "chef" one!

The Daring Cooks’ February 2012 challenge was hosted by Audax & Lis and they chose to present Patties for their ease of construction, ingredients and deliciousness! We were given several recipes, and learned the different types of binders and cooking methods to produce our own tasty patties!

I'm on a bit of a health kick at present so I wanted to make something full of vegies but also not light on flavour. Audax and Lisa provided a list of common binders for patties, and I decided to go with sweet potato as well as some blended-up chick peas.

I spent a week or so thinking about what to put in these. Not non-stop, obviously (although, given how often I think about food it wouldn't be entirely surprising if that had been the case!), but there was a certain flavour I was going for - there's this Indian stall at the St Andrews Market (a hippie craft/farmer's/trash n treasure market near where I live in Melbourne) that makes these wraps that have this sort of roasted vegetable fritter type thing, wrapped up in Roti and served with chutney and salad. I thought I'd give the Roti a miss (only cos I was cooking for myself and mum, and mum wouldn't be able to eat them because of the gluten, which would leave me to eat an entire packet of Roti... which, let's face it, would be delicious, but not really in line with my current health kick!).

The ingredients are probably fairly flexible - as I'm sure all the other Daring COoks discovered, making patties/fritters is definitely one of those add stuff "until it looks right" propositions!

1 small-medium sweet potato, peeled and steamed/boiled until soft
1 can (400g-ish) chick peas, drained
2 medium zucchinis, grated, liquid squeezed out to within an inch of its life
1 medium carrot, grated, liquid squeezed out
1/2 medium brown onion, grated, liquid squeezed out (that'll test ya! Or, see below note on blending)
2 cloves garlic, you guessed it, grated!
1 egg
Sweet paprika (I added about a tablespoon but add to taste)
Moroccan seasoning (I never do spell that correctly... I used about a teaspooon, but again, to taste)

Blend steamed sweet potato, chickpeas and egg (and if you were too scared to grate the onion and okay with your patties being sloppy, blend that too) in a food processor until it forms a smooth paste.

Add it to the grated vegetables and smoosh about with your hand until combined and the different vegetables are evenly distributed. Add spices and continue to smoosh mixture until well mixed.

Divide into six to eight balls.

Heat olive oil in frypan (I used a cast iron one) and place half the patties in the pan. Squash them so they are about 2cm thick. Fry until browned then flip. Continue cooking until the second side is cooked. Repeat with the other half of the raw patties.

Serve with a garden salad and mango chutney such as my BFF Kirsti made me for Christmas.

Tastes good cold, too! Which is just as well, because now that I can't drive for six months (no, I didn't lose my licence! It's a medical exclusion) and therefore have to catch the bus to Barham on Sunday nights, I have to eat dinner on the bus (without the driver noticing - no food allowed on the bus!). The good thing about catching the bus is that I have plenty of time to blog on my way up. Which makes me feel a little queasy after a while, but I'm beginning to think that's more to do with needing glasses... and now I'm rambling... so, ENJOY!

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Year of the Cupcake #8 - Valentine's Day Gluten Free Vanilla Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache Filling

I feel like I'm in a bit of a time warp at present - it seems as though my last batch of cupcakes was ages ago, but in reality it was just two weeks. I think that's more of a reflection on the fact that this month I wasn't in a mad rush to bake them before the end of the month. They just sort of happened, because I felt like baking them, and didn't feel like I was under pressure to bake and blog before the end of the month.

It's much more enjoyable cooking when you're not under pressure. I think the fact that I baked 2 things AND completed my February Daring Cooks challenge (no link yet as the post won't be up until the 14th) all in one afternoon, as well as fitting in a swim, a trip to the movies and some decent time spent curled up with a book, and felt tired but not stressed, really tells me that I enjoyed myself on Saturday.

This month, after the roaring success of last month's GF Chai Cupcakes (they rose! They really rose!), I decided to re-work a recipe for vanilla cupcakes that I had previously attempted to adapt to become GF. The recipe was originally from thecupcakeproject but now that I'm into the second incarnation the recipe is resembling the original less and less. I decided that, seeing as Valentine's Day is coming up, I would decorate them accordingly.

I was hoping the changes I made to the recipe would cause them to rise better, but it didn't seem to make a great deal of difference. They were still flattish, but not sunken, so I guess that counts as a partial success! Then again, I am increasingly filled with skepticism about the integrity of mum's oven. I think I may have to get a thermometer to place IN the oven, because I suspect it's five to ten degrees too cool, so for all I know this recipe could actually be a roaring success. They tasted less like vanilla, too, although in hindsight that's probably more to do with the fact that I loaded them up with chocolate ganache! I dropped a couple when I was turning them out of the pan, which meant they were squashed, so I had to eat a squashed one while it was still hot (you know, in the name of quality control ;) and it did taste like vanilla, so perhaps next time I use this recipe I will ice it with something significantly more subtle.

Also, I apologise for the photos - fading light + having no idea how to photograph glossy brown things in red wrappers = terrible photos!!! If anyone can tell me how to improve this situation I would be much obliged :)


Note that the below flowchart is how I normally copy recipes out by hand, so I thought I'd give it a whirl today. If you're struggling with the format, I have written notes below. Each set of ingredients is referred to as "set 1", "set 2" etc. in order down the page.

Now, for a favour - my Statcounter tells me there are regular readers all over the world and I value your input, so PLEASE comment and tell me whether you like this method of copying out recipes, or you prefer the good ol' fashioned method. Everyone who comments will go into a draw to win baked goods (home-made if you're within Australia, or a packet of Tim-Tams if you're outside of Australia). The draw will close on the 17th of February and the winner will be announced shortly thereafter. Get commenting!
And to the notes on the recipe -

Preheat oven to 180oC and line cupcake trays with cupcake liners (makes about 22 Australian cupcakes, give or take).

Combine Group 1 ingredients in a small bowl until vanilla seeds are evenly distributed throughout the sugar. Smells divine!

Whip egg whites (Group 6) until stiff peaks form. Set aside.

Mix Group 2 ingredients together in a large bowl and add combined Group 1 ingredients.

Add Group 3 ingredients to the large bowl and mix until resembling bread crumbs.

Mix Group 4 ingredients together in the bowl that originally contained the sugar/vanilla mixture until even in texture. Add to large bowl and mix well.

Add Group 5 ingredients slowly to the large bowl, mixing on low (you don't want to over-work GF products).

Fold half of Group 6 into the large bowl until evenly mixed, then fold the other half in.

Immediately scoop into cupcake wrappers (half fill) and bake for 14-16 minutes.

Note that the original recipe said 175oC for 14 minutes, but I ended up turning the oven up by ten degrees and baking for an extra five minutes or so once the 14 minutes was over. I think this has more to do with the seals on the oven than the accuracy of the recipe!

300mL of thickened cream (the sort you use to whip)
300g chocolate, finely chopped.

Note - I used 200g of dark chocolate and 100g of milk chocolate as this is what I had on hand. Milk chocolate can help take the edge of dark chocolate as dark chocolate on its own makes a very rich ganache. And I just realised why my ganache turned out so sloppy - I probably added a little less chocolate than I had originally intended (oops!), and  the closer to a 1:1 ratio of cream to chocolate, the sloppier the mix and the softer it will remain, even when refrigerated. For a stiffer mix, add more chocolate

Heat cream until bubbles form, dump in the chopped chocolate (make sure it is all submerged), let it sit for a few minutes and then stir it until it forms a smooth mixture.

Divide mixture in two. Mixture #1 will be cooled and then whipped, and mixture #2 will be cooled until it thickens so that it is spreadable but not uruly, but do not cool as much as mixture #1. I am impatient so I cooled mixture #1 in the freezer and stirred it every 5 to 10 minutes until it was still just pliable but a little on the stiff side, then whipped it with the whisk attachment on the Kenwood.

While I was daydreaming about ganache on the bus yesterday (as one does!) I realised that this would make a very good chocolate mousse replacement for people who are freaked out at the thought of raw egg (which is in normal, home-made chocolate mousse. I'm sorry if you didn't already know that and it has ruined your love for it!). Aaaanyway...

I then attempted to use this, which I got for my birthday last year from Kirsti. It's a hoover-joover for making holes in cupcakes and then filling them with something yummy.

I don't think I was using it correctly, but it still gave me a good-shaped hole.

I only cut about half way through the cupcake and then lifted the little cake round out with an old-fashioned sugar/jam spoon with a large, rounded end (think soup spoon, but smaller, and decorative)...

...filled them with a spoonful of whipped ganache...

...and then smooshed the tops back on.

Next time I will definitely consider putting the ganache in a piping bag and injecting the cupcakes with the filling - it would probably give a nicer finish. You know, provided the cupcake didn't explode ;)

And here are the super-cute heart-shaped sprinkles and red jimmies I used, available at (they don't know I exist, except that by the end of the year I will probably have just about paid off their mortgage!), which is also where I got the red and black cupcake wrappers from.

And here they all in rows.

And because it was getting dark, and because I also think I need glasses now, I have included another photo because one seemed too blurry. Except now that that one looks blurry, too... yep, time to visit the optometrist!

Don't forget to comment on the recipe format, even if you don't have a Google account. Thanks! :)

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Gluten Free Tropical Sunset Yo-Yos

I know, that's a long-winded name for this recipe but I felt like it. It's based on a recipe for passionfruit yo-yos (or, as some other states call them, melting moments *snorts with derision*), which is in AWW's Cook (wow, I just realised it costs half now what it did when it was bought for me about five years ago).

I basically did a straightforward switcheroonie of plain flour for plain GF flour and didn't add any xanthan gum (possibly a mistake). I think perhaps I was lucky that it was a warm day and I was having trouble rolling the biscuits into balls (the dough kept sticking to my hands), because otherwise I probably wouldn't have made them in 2 batches and treated the second batch differently, and so the entire thing would have been a screaming failure. The GF recipe is a lot more delicate than the original.

For my colour selection, I was initially inspired by the bright colours of the Great Macaron Craze of 2010 (the period of time when everyone decided baking was cool again and their heads exploded in an effort to learn to bake macarons. Don't ask me why - they're not biscuits and they're not meringues and I prefer both of those things to a macaron! Or perhaps I have just never had a good macaron...). I also love things that look like those retro hand-coloured, Technicolor pictures in old AWW cookbooks. They're wonderful. And who doesn't like pink! And orange! And the fact they had passionfruit in them made me think of tropical sunsets, thus the name.

Something I didn't expect was that the GF version of this recipe tastes a lot more buttery than the normal version of the recipe (although, as I edit this, I'm wondering whether I used a different recipe to the first time I baked them...). I can't explain why, but next time I will certainly be playing with a few more things to improve the recipe and the flavour - perhaps I will add some lemon peel to the dough and some sort of flavouring to the buttercream. In the meantime, here is my "it-kind-of-works-but-it-could-be-better" GF recipe!

250g butter
1/2c icing sugar
1tsp vanilla extract
1-2 drops red gel food colouring (I used Americolour Red Red)
1+1/2c plain GF flour
1/2c non-glutinous cornflour

Beat butter and sugar.

Bemoan the fact that it seems a bit weird to dip your finger into the butter-sugar mix when the sugar is basically non-existent and not at all delcious and grainy :(

Add egg and vanilla and a drop of food colouring and mix well.

Add flour and beat until combined. Add another drop of colouring if it seems necessary.

This part is really important!

Refrigerate dough until firm (at least half an hour).

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 170oC and line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
Roll into balls 2-3cm across (a super-heaped tsp or a scant tbsp) and place on trays, 3cm apart. They don't spread a great deal but they do spread more than normal yo-yos, so you may wish to use a third tray to be sure that they won't all stick to each other.
Lightly squash balls with a (GF) floured fork.

This part is really important!

Put squashed balls (hehe) on tray in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes to firm them up.

Bake for 12 mins. Leave on tray 5mins then transfer to cooling rack

1tbsp passionfruit pulp
80g butter
2 drops orange gel food colour (I used Americolour Orange)
2/3c icing sugar, sifted.

Beat butter until light and fluffy. Add food colour and beat until mixed in and colour is even. Add icing sugar and beat until combined. Add passionfruit and beat until combined. Avoid the urge to refrigerate the buttercream because if it's too hard it will be difficult to spread. Don't worry, refrigeration will come later.

Now this is where it gets a bit tricky, and you may find yourself concentrating so hard that your tongue comes out the corner of your mouth, like when you were a kid and you were trying really hard to cut something complicated out using scissors.

Once the biscuits are cool you need to fill them. Before you touch them, you need to be aware that the biscuits (especially when they are still warm) will literally explode in your hand if you exert too much force. How much force is too much, you ask? Um, not very much at all. I'm talking, you need to use a spatula to transfer them to the cooling rack otherwise you'll put your finger through it.

It follows that when you are filling the biscuits you need to give them as much support as possible. This means cupping it in your hand and verrrry gently spreading the buttercream on. Next, you top it with a second biscuit and verrry gently push it whilst twisting downwards to make it stick, about 1/4 of a turn. Try to push with 3 fingers flat or the palm of your other hand rather than 2 fingers - it means it is less likely to explode!

This part is really important!

Once they are all filled, pop them in the fridge until they are set. Once the buttercream has soaked into the biscuit a little and the cool has set them they are a LOT more stable. Serve straight out of the fridge. I don't recommend leaving them on the bench for more than about half an hour or so otherwise you'll be back to square one. Ten to fifteen minutes is probably ideal as they'll still be firm but not so cold as to retard the passionfruit flavour.

Here they are, all pretty! Note the evidence of exploded biscuits in the background :(

Things I will play with next time: addition of xanthan gum; addition of a small amount of lemon peel to the biscuit; addition of some passionfruit/other tropical flavouring to the buttercream; playing with refrigeration times; refrigerating the biscuit before squashing and also before adding the filling; and maybe adding a little more flour as it is quite a wet dough.