Of Mince Pies & Christmas Crackers

xmas table

As far back as I can remember we have celebrated Christmas in pretty typical Anglo fashion. When we lived in the UK, on Xmas morning, the stockings we put out would be filled not only with smaller gifts, but also oranges and nuts, lunch was roast turkey and pork with all the trimmings (but I recall boiled bacon and pease pudding was served before we adopted the Turkey tradition) and the table wouldn’t have been complete without Christmas Crackers. Of course dessert was always a flaming Xmas pudding served with brandy butter. Other traditions our family subscribed to apart from the Queens speech, included the exotic addition of a fresh pineapple, obligatory bowls of nuts ready to be cracked (only ever Brazils, Hazel and Walnuts) trays of dried dates, crystalised and glace citrus and always, but always, trays and trays of mince pies dusted with a “snow” like layer of icing sugar.

mince pies 5Over the years, many of our family “traditions” like all traditions, have morphed and changed. Once in Australia Xmas stockings became pillow cases, fruit and nuts became lollies, lunch became dinner then dinner became an all day graze (as the turkey and pork took a back seat) and Pavlova joined the pudding table. On the side of the main event, things changed as well, the no longer exotic Pineapple disappeared, thank goodness, the whole cracking nuts thing waned in favour of the ready to eat roasted and salted variety, and sensibly dates and sugared fruits went out in preference to fresh summer fruits like cherries, apricots and mangoes.

But with all these changes, two things have remained constant, Mince Pies and Christmas Crackers. The crackers thing is not surprising, they are as much a symbol of Christmas excess as a present laden tree, but why when everything else has changed did we keep the mince pie tradition? Essentially it was mums “thing”, in fact the more Xmas celebrations changed, the more she embraced her passion for baking and giving away literally thousands of mince pies as Xmas gifts each year for friends and family, and they were universally loved and looked forward to, even by people that had previously professed not to like them.mum - cropped

So what made mum’s pies so popular?, was it the filling, well maybe not, she only ever used “Robertsons” off of the shelf, but she did add copious amounts of brandy, and I mean lots of brandy. Or was it the pastry, no thick, sweet and heavy dough like shop bought long life mutations here, mums pastry was a instead an unsweetened short paste and rolled paper thin. Of course both these elements are important but I think the key ingredient in mums pastry was the love she put into them. I know this is a cliché but I can’t think of another explanation.

The pastry itself though is something mum was famous for amongst family and friends. Passed down by her maternal Nan, it is the only type of pastry she ever made, and it graced everything from blackberry and apple pies through to sausage rolls. Technically it is very similar to an all lard pie crust I like to use, but mum’s recipe differs in two distinct ways, first she used softer self raising flour instead of the plain or bakers I would use and secondly, and critically, the fat she employed (in Australia at least) was “Fairy” pastry margarine.

fruit minceNow this poses a problem for me, I really dislike margarine and prefer to use pure natural fats and for years I tried to make her pastry using only butter, but always without much success. However this year after deciding to honor mum by making her mince pies for the Barossa Farmers Market (albeit with our own fruit mince – see image at right) I decided to give her recipe yet another go with just one amendment and that was to replace margarine with a mixture of butter and lard and hey presto, in a blind tasting I would swear we were eating mum’s pastry.

And I suspect my great grandmother would approve, because by reverting back to butter and lard we have gone full circle, after all margarine was not popularised until the middle of the 20th century and so natural fat would have been the only option when she learnt to make it back in Mrs. Beetons day. So if you feel like getting in the Xmas spirit (or just want a foolproof pastry recipe) why not give the following a try.

 

Mince pies

Pastry (makes 2 doz small pies)

225g                  self raising flour – sifted
35g                    lard
75g                    salted butter – cold in 5mm cubes
35ml                 iced water (approx)

 Method

  • Rub fats into flour gently with fingertips to make a fine crumb
  • Add water and continue to work with fingertips until it starts to come together
  •  Press dough into a flat rectangle, (do not knead)  wrap in plastic film and chill for 20 minutes before using

Mince Pies (to make 2 doz small pies)

1                           recipe pie pastry (above)
350g                    Fruit mince
50ml                    Brandy
2 tablespoons     milk
1ciing sugar to dust

 Method

  • Roll out half the pastry on a floured surface until almost paper thin, using a small (6.5cm) crimped cookie cutter, cut out 24 tops, cover and refrigerate and reserve trimmings separately
  • Roll out remaining pastry to the same thickness as before and using a larger (8cm) plain cutter, cut out 24 bases (you will need to rest and reroll trimmings to achieve the full quantity)
  • Place bases  into small round based patty pan trays pressing into place firmly
  • Mix Brandy and fruit mince and place a heaped teaspoon into the centre of each pie, do not flatten out or push to edges the top will do this for you

mince pies 4

  • Brush lightly the inside of each lid with milk and press milk side down onto the top of each pie sealing around the edges
  • When all pies are filled and covered, brush lightly with remaining milk, prick or cut a small slit in the top of each pie and bake at 170c until golden brownmince pies 3v

Remove from the oven and dust immediately with icing sugar. Enjoy while still warm or cool and store in an airtight container for up to a week if you have strong will power and please don’t refrigerate!

mince pies

Just Nuts about Hazelnuts…

cropped-Torino-e1367812482559

Piemonte is one of the food and wine world’s best (or worst) kept secrets. Little wonder that the Slow Food Movement is headquartered here because seriously, there is so much great food and wine packed in this little region of Italy than is really fair. Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, & Arneis are but a few of the wine grape varieties that enjoy near legendary status, grown as they are in famous Appellations like Barolo, Alba, Barbaresco, Asti & Gattinara.

Then there’s the food, white truffles, chestnuts, amazing cheeses, rice, all manner of game meats and hazelnuts. Believe me the Piedmontese are literally nuts about hazelnuts, especially when combined with chocolate and of course this is the where the famous Ferrero family of Ferrero Rocher and Nutella fame are based. What culinary extremes, home to not only some of the world’s most highly regarded wines and rare perfumed fungi but also some of the most widely available and popular sugary confections on the planet.

hazelnuts

But why is the chocolate and hazelnut combination so strong here? The Hazelnut part is easily explained, the climate and terrain of the “Langhe” has been well suited to the cultivation of hazelnuts for centuries, but when the new fashion for cocoa was at its peak in Turin during the late 1700’s this fad ran head long into Napoleon’s Regency of Piedmonte. At that very time around the early 1800’s, restrictive trade sanctions and a physical blockade (sound familiar) prevented cocoa and other luxury imports from reaching destinations under Napoleonic control.

Legend claims that it wasn’t much later, that resourceful Piemontese pastry cooks came up with a smooth, sweet and creamy, firm paste of roasted hazelnuts and bitter cocoa to manage the scarcity of the more highly desirable chocolate. They called this confection Gianduja after a carnival character (pictured below) who was a symbol of independence  Interestingly the development of Gianduja  ran pretty much parallel to the development of Milk chocolate a relatively short trek across the Swiss Alps. Unfortunately for the Torinese, milk chocolate went on to conquer the world while Gianduja remained largely a local specialty in Turin.

gianduja2

However fast track almost a hundred years and in 1946 following world war 2, another severe rationing of chocolate apparently led Albanese pastry chef Pietro Ferrero to produce large batch of chocolate-like “Pasta Gianduja” . Importantly because the major ingredient was locally sourced he was able to make this at a fraction of the cost of chocolate candy and this paste proved both popular and profitable. Over the next few years he refined this to a smooth spread finally launching Nutella as we know it in the early 1960’s.

Since this humble start, Nutella consumption has spread from its Italian home into every corner of the globe to the extent that it is estimated or rather claimed on the internet that the weight of Nutella consumed globally each year roughly equates to the mass of the Empire State Building! Whatever the facts, Ferrero’s success has spawned a whole range of imposters and lookalikes of varying quality.

wheres the bread

However last weekend over Easter when I needed some Nutella I found the cupboard bare and the shops closed. With a little research, I realized that I actually had all the ingredients on hand to make a little batch of something very close to a soft pasta Gianduja, and the result surprised me , it was smooth, rich and dairy free with a much more pronounced toasted nutty character and devoid of the rancidity which often plagues the cheap substitutes mentioned earlier.

The other big plus is that it was quite a bit less sugary and with a tiny hint of salt and some nice cocoa bitterness it even has a slightly savoury edge, and just for the record it made a delicious filing for the Hazelnut and Chocolate Danish Pastries we were trialing for next week’s Vintage Festival Breakfasts at Bethany Wines. Try it yourself, it really is ridiculously simple and equally delicious.

Hazelnut and Cocoa Paste 

120g                                     hazelnuts
1/2  cup                               icing sugar
2 tablespoons                    cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon                       sunflower oil
1/2 teaspoon                      vanilla paste
tiny pinch                          fine salt

Method:

Roast hazelnuts until lightly golden brown, skin blisters and nuts are fragrantly toasty

roasting nutsroasted nuts- skinningready to grind

Rub in a cloth to remove skins and when cool place in a blender and grind very finely

ground nutsblend 20 secondsadd sugar, cocoa, vanilla , oil and saltblend 20 seconds

Add cocoa, icing sugar, vanilla, oil and salt and process until very fine, smooth, glossy and spreadable, its that simple!

 

One a penny, Two a penny…..

ready to eat

Yesterday our local supermarket was bereft of bread with the usual pre Easter panic shopping but there was a surfeit of those horrible chemical laden, artificial smelling, long life Hot Cross Buns, the ones that started appearing on the shelves the very day the Valentines day chocolate displays were out of the way…. You have to love our “Hallmark Events” culture.

Seeing these sad commercial things sweating it out in their plastic bags, I got to thinking about their origins. I seemed to remember that though they have been associated in our Anglo culture with the event that occurred on a Friday almost 2000 years ago (since at least the late middle ages), but their origin and design actually goes back much further.

Thankfully my trusty old go to pastry text “The New International Confectioner” a book that I have relied on and referred back to for almost 40 years, has a full half  page devoted to the history and mythology of Hot Cross Buns. Steeped in pagan rites, it cites ancient Babylonian fire symbols of a circle with a cross inside and notes that cakes and breads were routinely decorated thus, that the Ancient Greeks did a similar thing with the cross symbolizing the four phases of the moon and in fact many basic breads are still scored in much the same way as would have been the case two thousand years ago.

For example below are images of petrified bread from Pompeii, loaves created following ancient roman texts, modern day Khobz from Morocco, Irish Soda bread and German Easter Bread just to illustrate the form, style and cultural /ethnic traditions that pre-date the commercialization of todays Easter celebration but which all look remarkably familar.

breads

Of course the other misnomer with hot cross buns is the spicing, today, allspice and mixed spice make up the predominant blend, as well as commercial bun spice which is so strong it cant be natural. Interestingly though these spice mixtures are almost certainly Arabic or Levantine in origin, bought back by western Europe by the crusaders, or infused into Europe via the  Caliphate that occupied Spain and the Mediterranean for several centuries.

These sweet spices make up many of the most savoury seasonings in the Arab world and have become greatly used in French cuisine particularly through their incorporation into Quatre Epices. Of course the English adopted the French tradition and used these particular spices in their (originally savoury) mince pies, a fetid beef, suet and dried fruit concoction that was made palatable and sweet smelling by the use of these exotic spices. Clearly they developed a tasting or a liking for these relatively expensive ingredients as they went on to be used almost exclusively in luxury goods like cakes and pastries.

But getting back to where I started, my family all love a good hot cross bun, but I can’t abide the type one buys in the supermarket. So this being Good Friday, and with a little time to spare, I decided to step up and make some for the family. Personally, I like mine a little lighter in spice and not as sickly sweet,  and certainly without the awful mixed peel that tastes like citrus cleaning product, rather in its place Sukkade, a Dutch candied citron that is oh so delicate.

As for the  recipe, it’s pretty straight forward, we made ours in about 3 hours start to finish and the family loves them, I hope you do too.

Hot Cross Buns

500g                       plain flour
300ml                    water – luke warm
15g                          dry yeast
30g                         sugar
Pinch                     nutmeg – ground/grated
¼ teaspoon          clove – ground
½ teaspoon          cinnamon
30g                         butter
1 teaspoon            salt

20g                         Succade (Dutch candied citron peel)
30g                         currants
30g                         sultanas

1                              egg – beaten for glazing buns

Cross Paste
25g                        flour
30g                        water
1 ½ teaspoons    vegetable  oil

Bun Glaze
2 tablespoons    sugar
1 tablespoon      water
pinch of             cinnamon – ground
pinch of             clove – ground

Method – Makes 12:

  • Sift flour, then prepare a starter “sponge” by mixing a quarter of the flour with the sugar and yeast, stir in the water to form a smooth light batter, cover and leave to ferment until foaming and frothy.

bun dough

  • To this “sponge” add the remaining flour, spices, salt and butter and knead well until silky smooth, soft and elastic.

add fruit

 

  • Cover and allow to double, roll out and sprinkle currants, sultanas and Zuckader over, work in lightly, divide into 12 equal portions and shape into small rolls.

bun portion

  • Grease baking dish and place rolls in dish leaving about 1cm all around edges and between rolls to allow for expansion
  • Mix ingredients for “cross paste” and fill into a small piping bag with a fine nozzle and reserve.
  • Cover and allow to double again, buns are ready when they do not spring back when pressed.

egg wash

  • Brush with beaten egg, pipe cross over to decorate and bake in an oven preheated to 200C for 12-15 minutes.

crosses

  • While baking prepare the bun glaze by bringing spices, sugar and water to the boil

baked

  • Remove buns when golden brown on top and bottom, brush with bun glaze while still hot and leave to cool thoroughly (if you can!)

 

 

 

Its Marvelous What A Difference Milo Makes!

H served

Choosing a dessert to serve to a group can be a difficult thing, especially for a group of family and friends with wildly divergent tastes. Some people love them, others claim not to but will still devour them, while others, self included, prefer cheese or something savoury. But there are so many options, from extravagant to simple, piping hot or frozen solid, light to rich and everything in between, so what constitutes a great pudding?

The growth of dessert bars and restaurants employing “molecular” techniques seems to have made desserts increasingly complex, deconstructed into multiple elements to keep up with food fashion and trends. Of course the best of these “new desserts” in the hands of master pastry chefs can be sublime or ethereal, but all too often they are simply copy cat versions of someone else’s creations, poorly executed and clumsy at best.

Even at the highest levels though, these “new creations” never seem to provoke the response one gets from home spun or comfort desserts. Maybe it’s the familiarity factor, or just plain old, uncomplicated deliciousness with no need for intellectualization, but with old school “puddings or sweets” people will often ask for extra helpings, in a way that they never will for a deconstructed lemon cheese cake, you know the type of thing:

“Cream cheese foam, Buttered almond granola gravel, Heirloom citrus gel and Popping candy dust”.

Keeping this and simplicity in mind I decided that for our family get together, I should serve a safe old favourite, maybe something as simple as a “rich chocolate tart”. But because our “adult” guest of honour, is an ice-cream addict (especially with Milo if he gets the chance) we decided a twist was in order, and  creating a malty “Milo” tart seemed to be a good idea .

With a little trial and error we arrived at the following recipe, its hardly kids stuff, boasting grown up, comfort flavours and it is still definitely rich, but the filling is lighter featuring a Milo enriched pastry cream rather than a heavy chocolate ganache and is even slightly savoury thanks to a little salt in the mix. Even though it may look complicated it really is quite easy and worth the effort, what’s more, it went down a treat with some old rich Barossa Muscat and home made vanilla ice cream of course!

 

Milo Tart

Pastry Case:

125g Flour
50g sugar
20g cocoa powder
90g butter
½ egg- beaten

Method:

  • Sift flour sugar and cocoa together, rub in butter to a fine crumb and add egg.

2 rubin 2a crumble

  • Using fingertips pull dough together, do not knead, allow to rest for 20 minutes
  • Roll out between two sheets of plastic wrap and transfer into a 25cm flan ring.

3 dough 4 pin out

  • Press firmly into tin, trim edges, prick base all over and place in fridge for 20 minutes
  • Bake at 170c for 7-10 minutes or until crisp. Allow to cool before use (can be made ahead)

 

 

Milo Cream
350ml milk
70g Milo
100g malt extract

6 egg yolks
50g cornflour

50g dark chocolate – 70% cocoa
1 teaspoon Maldon sea salt flakes
20ml Amontillado sherry

250ml cream
50g caster sugar

Extra Milo for serving

Method:

  • Warm milk with milo and malt extract until all is dissolved /incorporated
  • Cream yolks and cornflour together in a mixing bowl
  • Whisk in warm milo and milk mixture until smooth and strain into a saucepan.

B Milk & Milo C cook cream 2

  • Bring gently to a simmer stirring constantly with a spatula to ensure nothing sticks to the base

 

  • As soon as mixture boils, remove from the heat and mix in the chocolate, salt and sherry
  • Beat well until smooth and glossy and allow to cool thoroughly

D cook cream 3 E add chocolate

  • When cool, whisk cream and sugar until thick and fold evenly through the chocolate custard
  • Fill into pre baked tart shell and allow to set for at least 2 hours

F fold cream G tart

  • Dredge top with extra Milo before serving in wedges with vanilla ice cream

Rote Grutze, Groats, Grits or Gruel

This Saturday marks one of the big days on our Barossa calendar, the Annual Tanunda show, held mid-vintage every year, a celebration of this valley that I am proud to call home, and one of the highlights is the hotly contended Rote Grutze championship.

For the uninitiated Rote Grutze is a dish originally from Northern Germany and Scandanavia where it also goes by the names Rodgrod or Rotezetke Gruetze, and is a kind of red fruit jelly, set with starch instead of gelatin or alginates.

Rotegrutze

With “rote” meaning red, “grutze” is related to the English words gruel or groats and even grits, all of which are porridges of cracked or coarsely ground grains like wheat, semolina, oats, barley, buckwheat, and in the Southern States of the USA, corn.

German Master Pastry Chef Christian Teubner describes Rote Grutze as “…. simply fruit juice thickened with cornflour, semolina or sago….” an accurate description, except European versions use fruits like redcurrants and true blackcurrants, but neither of these do too well in our Mediterranean climate.

By contrast, The Barossa’s Rote Grutze uses Grape juice (and there is a big disagreement whether it should be Grenache, Shiraz or Mataro) and while the pioneers that settled our valley may have been familiar the type of dessert Mrs Beeton called “Danish Pudding” (below) no local recipes for our dessert made with grapes exists until around 1920, some 60 years after the valley was settled.

Danish Pudding

However, such is the legendary status of this dish in the Barossa that I hadn’t questioned its origins, and so for the past 20 years, I have repeated the line that this sago and grape jelly, only exists in this form, in one place in the world, our “Barossa”. So imagine my surprise recently when I found out about an almost identical recipe, but originating on the other side of the world some 200 years ago!

Dating to when the Portuguese Royal family “The House of Braganza” fled to their Brazilian colony in the 1800’s to escape Napoleon and what would become known as the Peninsular wars. This dessert was apparently developed through the merging of  a traditional Brazilian tapioca or cassava porridge, but was sweetened with Portuguese grapes, spices and rich dark Port wine. Called “Sagu ao vinho tinto”  this dish is still made today as a regional specialty and is always served with fresh cream, just like Rote Grutze.

sagu ao vinho tinto

sagu ao vinho tinto

In fact our word Sago comes via the 16th century Portuguese Molluccas where the Sagu palm is naturalized, but today most of what is sold as Sago is actually tapioca. Of course, with this pudding hailing from around 1810, it pre-dates the arrival of Germanic settlers into South Australia and the Barossa by at least 25 years, but intriguingly there is another connection to Portugal through Colonel Light and his service in the Peninsula wars, notably the battle of Barrosa.

So did the good burghers and military men of early Adelaide know this Sago dessert from Portuguese connections or is our Rote Grutze just a coincidence, the result of fusion or evolution with Silesian settlers adapting to grape juice and sago instead of the redcurrants and semolina that would have been familiar, even if the local tradition of doctoring Rote Grutze with “Port” for extra flavor makes me wonder.

Anyway, whatever the origin of this recipe, German, Portuguese, Brazilian, or local invention, it’s simple, delicious and well worth making if you can get your hands on some fresh red wine grapes. I’ll leave you to argue about which varieties are best!

 

Rotegrutze

4 tablespoons       Sago / tapioca balls
500ml                    Grape Juice (Mataro preferably)
2 tablespoons       Caster Sugar
½ stick                   Cinnamon
2                               Cloves
1 strip                      Lemon zest

Method

Prepare grape juice by separating grapes from stems and place in a saucepan with a little water, cover pan and bring to a simmer,turn off heat and allow grapes to release their juices.

ready to juice

Press grapes to extract as much, juice, colour and flavor as possible and strain to produce clean juice, you will need about 1.5 – 2kg of grapes to yield 500g juice.

juice#1stems and seeds

Bring grape juice, sugar and spices to a simmer and leave to infuse off of heat for 20 minute and to dissolve sugar.

spiced juice

Strain off spices, stir in sago and bring back to a simmer stirring well to avoid clumping

starch ready to cook

Continue to simmer gently until sago is clear, about 20 minutes then allow to cool slightly and pour into serving dishes.

Rotegrutze

Chill for a few hours or overnight and enjoy it simply with fresh Jersey cream….. Delicious!

Why on earth would you want to eat a green fig?

glazed figs

When it comes to things edible we have a lot to be thankful of from the ancients of the Mediterranean basin. Imagine if you can, who would have first thought that a horribly spiny thistle, possessing bitterness beyond belief, could be transformed into the classic Artichokes a la Grecque, or that olives, equally bitter and looking poisonously purple when ripe, could be cured with salt water to become a delicacy and in fact a signature ingredient of a entire region. What about caper leaves, and to be honest caper buds and berries, then there are apricot kernels, which though full of toxic Prussic Acid (aka Hydrogen Cyanide), could be turned in to the delicious liqueur Amaretto, by steeping them in neat alcohol and adding caramel. Of course the list goes on, and includes the subject of todays blog, something that really is seemingly thoroughly inedible.

FIG1

You see, its midsummer here in the Barossa, and of course that means we are moving closer to vintage. It also means the ancient, gnarly, fig tree in our garden (see my previous post “What’s with the Figgin Seasons..”) is chockablock full of tiny green fruit, awaiting that final flush of growth and ripening that runs parallel to the Shiraz harvest in our locale. What’s more, as summer progresses we see hordes of birdlife descend to feast on the fruits of our valley at this time of year. As a consequence, each year we lose at least 60% of our fig crop to our avian friends and neighborhood possums. Just for once it would be nice to be able to use some of these fruits before they are either decimated by wildlife, or end up ripening so fast that I can’t keep up with them.

FIG2

But who or why on earth would you want to eat a green fig? At this stage in their ripeness, (or lack of) green figs are about as attractive a food as an olive straight from the tree or an artichoke bud straight from plant. They are hard, fibrous and oozing a irritating, lactic sap when cut. In fact, they are exactly the kind of thing the Mediterranean food alchemists would have had fun with. But I have eaten preserved green figs in my travels and with a little research I was able to discover numerous recipes designed to make these inedible “flower buds” delicious  The majority were for unripe figs cooked long and slow in a heavy sugar syrup and destined to accompany cheeses once fresh figs run out. With a bit of a tweak  I have come up with something unmistakably Mediterranean, one which sees them stuffed with pistachio nuts and candied in a spiced, rose flavored, wine syrup. FIG3 Green Figs and Pistachio Nuts in Rose Scented Wine Syrup

24 small                  unripe green figs
24                           pistachio nuts – shelled
¼ cup                     dried rose petals
4                             cardamom pods
4                             cloves
1                              lemon – peel and juice
2 cups                     sugar
½ cup                     honey
1 cup                      water
1 cup                      white wine

Method

Cut a small cross into the base of each fig, place in a stainless steel saucepan cover with cold water and bring to a simmer, cook gently until figs are just tender.

While figs are poaching make a little spice bag containing the lemon peel, rose petals and spices using cheese cloth or a little square of chux cloth, tie securely with kitchen twine and reserve.

When tender drain and refresh figs briefly with cold water and then drain for a couple of minutes before stuffing each fig with a pistachio kernel by inserting it through the previously made cross in the base.

Meanwhile prepare a syrup with the sugar, honey, water, wine and lemon juice and bring to a simmer, skim any impurities from syrup and pour over stuffed figs and spice bag.

Bring back to a gentle simmer and cook until syrup is rich and thick (2-3 hours), remove figs if they are getting over cooked and reserve them to place back in syrup once it has reduced to the desired consistency

Bottle while still hot if the figs are too be used later in the year or simply refrigerate covered if you plan to use them within a few weeks.