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Meg Reviews Recipes: Spicy Fruit Loaf

Source: Australian Womens Weekly "Quick Mix Cakes and Deliciously Easy Muffins" Cookbook, p109; ISBN: 1-86396-001-5; (c) ACP Publishing Pty Ltd 1999.

This is a bit of a favourite of mine, although it's a right whatsit to make. The recipe is a "rub in" recipe, where you start by rubbing the butter into the flour, and this one has 125g of butter to be rubbed into 2 cups of flour (plus an extra 2 teaspoons of dry ingredients comprised of bicarb and spices). Let's just say if you have arthritis in your hands, this is probably not a recipe you want to try without one of those special little doovers (looks like a handle with a bunch of wire loops hanging off it - a bit of googling tells me they're called "pastry blenders"[1]) for cutting butter into flour. Failing that, you may want to stop every so often and let your hands stretch out a bit, because they will cramp up unless you make scones and/or pastry on the regular.

Once you've finished giving yourself RSI and improving your grip strength sight out of mind, you add the sugar, the dried fruit (standard mixed dried fruit works fine) and then the liquid ingredients (1 egg and a cup of milk) before pouring the whole lot into a loaf tin and baking it for about 1 1/4 hours. Unlike most of the fruit cakes in this cookbook, you're not cooling this one in the pan - it gets cooled on a rack after the first ten minutes. '

Serve it with butter; this keeps for well over a week without really getting stale or going off. It's very dense, and very dark, particularly if you use dark brown sugar (lighter brown sugar gives a lighter coloured loaf).

Difficulty: 1 out of 5 (it isn't a hard recipe to understand or follow)
Spoons/Fuss and Bother: 5 out of 5 (rubbing in the butter takes time, and I inevitably wind up with my hands cramping); it's a very stiff mixture to mix, so if you don't have much arm and hand strength, you're probably better off getting someone else to make this for you.
Overall: 5 out of 5 (this is a favourite I keep making over and over again, despite the crampy hands).
Considerations: Cake. This contains gluten, sugar, butter, milk and eggs. Don't eat a whole one at one sitting (it's a very dense cake; I doubt anyone could do it without making themselves sick anyway) and don't try to serve it to vegans.

[1] Link goes to Amazon because that's the one which came up fastest and most reliably.

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Current Mood: calm calm
On Cooking and Learning

I've been cooking pretty much since I could see over the stove. My mother started teaching me how to bake when my age was still in single digits - making Queen Cakes and Cornflour Cakes from the recipes in her "Golden Wattle" cookbook, and learning how to measure in ounces and pounds on the fly (an ounce was roughly a tablespoon; an ounce of sugar occupied less space than an ounce of flour). By the time I was about ten, I was cooking meals for my family, at first on the weekends (and sometimes there were some rather spectacular mishaps there) and then during the week. By the time I was in high school, cooking dinner for the family was one of my expected chores.

One thing I've learned about cooking is you never really stop learning how to cook.

I enjoy cooking. It's fun, taking all these raw ingredients, combining them, mixing things together, adding heat and motion and bits of this and that, and creating something delicious at the other end. Even the occasional flops are fun, because the interesting bit then is sitting down and figuring out what went wrong. Cooking, as the saying goes, is science for hungry people. It's an art, and it's a craft at the same time.

So, in the interests of sharing with the class, a few tips I've discovered along the way.

1) The first time you prepare a recipe, it's a fifty-fifty chance you'll get a horrendous mess, even if you do your best and read all the instructions.

2) The photos in cookbooks are carefully staged. Real food is messy, and more or less brown.

3) To cream butter and sugar for cakes successfully, it helps to have the butter at room temperature. Chop it small, and if all else fails, run some hot water into the sink and sit the bowl in that until the butter softens enough to be malleable.

4) Getting a recipe to the point where everything is effortless is something which requires practice. It isn't going to happen the first time you cook something, or even the second. Instead, you're going to need to cook it at least four or five times, and learn from the mistakes you make along the way each time.

5) TV cooks start with everything carefully measured, everything carefully laid out, and with at least two off-siders preparing things around the edges as well as doing the washing up afterwards. Then they do everything multiple times, with multiple takes, in order to produce one photogenic version of the dish in question.

Restaurant chefs have a huge supply of off-siders doing preparation, and being delegated the more basic steps in the preparation and also monitoring the clean-up. Plus, of course, they produce a very limited menu, which is often focussed on being entirely too photogenic for its own good.

Home cooks, by contrast, get one try to produce something edible, and the vast majority of household kitchens aren't designed to have more than one person at a time in there. Plus it's very much "rinse as you go" as far as the washing up side of things goes. Learn to live with the fact you're not going to get TV or Restaurant results on a regular basis, and figure out a couple of dishes which don't require much effort to look fancy. Pasta bakes and lasagnes do pretty well in this department, as far as I'm concerned, because a decent layer of melted grated cheese and/or white sauce covers a multitude of sins. My mother's go-to "fancy" dish was salmon mornay baked up with cornflake crumbs on top, decorated with tomato slices and cheese, and served with pasta.

6) There are some dishes which quite literally cannot be prepared without getting the stove messy. Fried rice is one of these for me.

7) Meat stews default to brown. Tomato dishes default to red. Curries tend to go either brown or yellow, depending on the degree of turmeric in the mix.

8) The more you read recipe books, and the longer you spend cooking, the more adept you get at being able to tell what can be dropped from the recipe, what can be substituted for something cheaper or more readily available, and which bits of the recipe are the essential bits.

9) Every experienced cook will have at least one or two recipes in their repertoire which are basically about using up bits and pieces of left over this and that, and where consequently the "recipe" consists mainly of two or three things which are essential, and a long list of things which can be added and subtracted as available.

10) Soups and casseroles are very forgiving and basically consist of variations around a single core formula. (Soups start with a stock, then you add vegetables and/or meat, and cook until done. Puree if it's supposed to be a smooth soup, otherwise pass the ladle. Casseroles start by browning the meat, adding the slow-to-cook vegetables and appropriate seasoning, adding a liquid component, and then cooking slowly until everything has cooked through). Once you know the core formula, and a few basic flavour combinations, you can start coming up with a lot of variations on a theme.

11) The best accessory for any kitchen is someone who will eat what you produce, preferably with every evidence of enjoyment.

12) You don't need all the fancy gizmos and gadgets most of the time. You can get away with a couple of saucepans, a decent frying pan, a couple of good knives and some serving spoons. If you're going to be using a gizmo or gadget more than once or twice a year, it's possibly an investment, but if not, take time out to go through your gadget drawer every so often, and weed out the ones which aren't paying their way. (To be honest, the only one I've found even vaguely irreplaceable is a citrus zester - and even there, the small side of the grater will do as a substitute, even if it is more fiddly to clean).

13) This one isn't necessarily confined to the kitchen, but the kitchen is where I learned it, so I'll put it here: if you wind up throwing it out without using it, you threw your money into the bin. (This is testament to years of learning the sad truth of "economising" by buying bulk quantities of things I use very rarely, if at all).

Anyone got anything else to add to the list?

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Current Mood: chipper chipper
Re-use, Recycle, Reduce - A practical lesson

As my regular readers may well be aware, my partner and I are on a very low income. Which means I tend to be pinching pennies pretty hard these days. So one day, after realising that most of the fruit in the fruit bowl (apples and a few pears) was looking pretty much dead, I decided to make the best of things, and make up fruit crumble for dessert (dinner was "scrounge" - leftovers, foodsicles[1], or whatever the player fancies on toast). So I peeled, sliced and stewed up the apples and pears.

[Stewing mixture for core fruit - apples, pears etc:

Peel and slice fruit. Place in a small saucepan. Add 1 dessert-spoon white sugar, 1 clove, approx 1 dessert-spoon lemon juice, and just enough water to cover. Bring to boil, then simmer for about 20 minutes. Drain and remove clove if using immediately, otherwise store in fridge for up to a week.]

The stewed fruit went into a small casserole dish, and I made up some crumble topping. Unfortunately, my recipe for crumble topping is designed to serve about 8 people (rather than just the 2 of us), and it resulted in a lot of leftover crumble even after I'd generously topped the stewed fruit. Hmmm... what to do with it.

Well, the mixture was predominantly plain flour, brown sugar, coconut, rolled oats and butter rubbed in. Hmm... says I, that's a lot like the mixture for ANZAC biscuits. I could do something with that.

So the next day, I took the leftover crumble mix, added another helping of rolled oats, a couple of tablespoons of golden syrup, a couple of teaspoons of bicarbonate of soda, and a couple of tablespoons of boiling water; mixed everything together, and spooned it out in biscuit-sized chunks on a couple of baking trays. Cooked them for about 15 minutes at 175C or thereabouts (between 150 and 200 on the dial, anyway) and set them out to cool.

Turned out nice!

[1] A foodsicle is a frozen dinner. By extension from popsicle being frozen soft drink.

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Current Mood: calm calm
Update - 18 SEP 2017

There's lots of things I could be talking about here. I'm going to talk about the plants I've purchased for the garden.

Gardening under the fold )

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Current Mood: busy busy
Clearing Out Books

This week has been a slightly better week than last week. Not heaps better, mostly because the two topics being covered in my two university units are an unfortunate conjunction which means I'm wading into uncomfortable psychological waters. On the one hand, my communications unit, Culture to Cultures, is currently covering the Indigenous History of the region, which means I'm dealing with a lot of racism which appears to me to be based largely on envy, viciousness, and free-floating stupidity (and the really depressing part is it's still going even today... *sigh*). The paladin part of my brain, the part which gets annoyed at unfairness and stupidity, and wants to ride out on a crusade to Fix The World (or at least stop me being so irritated by it), is getting twitchy. On the other hand, my writing unit, Introduction to Creative Writing, is dealing with poetry - which means I'm dipping into my subconscious and discovering things even I wasn't aware of - and not all of this is pleasant.

So there's that side of things. Thanks be to the gods our tutor for Creative Writing is placing a stipulation that we have to supply three poems, and two of them have to be from highly structured formats (which changes the whole game from "the psychological exploration inherent in finding your voice" to "the intellectual puzzle of fitting your idea into the right combination of lines, stanzas, words and metre". Gods know I'm far more comfortable with the latter than the former. I mean, yeah, sure being a writer means being vulnerable, and putting your Self on display. But I'd rather at least be picking and choosing the bits of Self I'm putting on display such that "underbelly" and "key shatter points" are not among them. Call it a reaction against too many years of bullying.

But studying poetry has made me want to read my old favourites, so I'm going searching for my Norton Anthology of Poetry again. Problem is, I don't know which of the various boxes of books in the storeroom it's packed in. So I'm having to unpack boxes of books again. Got one down off the shelf last night, and discovered it wasn't the one (I wasn't expecting it to be - this was a box sealed back in 2011, two moves ago). What I did discover were the last two volumes of the Belgariad (so I'll probably be re-reading that some time soon) as well as the whole Malloreon, Belgarath the Sorceror, and Polgara the Sorceress. Fortunately for me, I've cleared off my "farewell re-read" shelves recently (got rid of everything which has been sitting there for a year waiting for me to give it the farewell re-read, on the grounds of if I haven't done it by now, I ain't a-gonna do it), so there's space for the few books from this box that I might be interested in re-reading to be unpacked onto it, and I'll see about going through them over the next twelve months or so. The rest can go to one of the various op-shops around the area, once the donation bag (which is currently full of the last lot to be donated) is emptied out again.

As a bonus, the space in the storeroom the box used to be occupying is now available for something else to move into, which means there's the option of shuffling things around in the store-room so I can find the box wherein my Norton Anthology of Poetry resides, and retrieve it!

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Current Mood: calm calm
A Small Update

Just to bring people up to speed on what's happening in my life and what I've been up to.

The good news:

1) I have a new smartphone! I've been saving up for this for most of the last couple of years, and the Telstra shop had a fortuitous sale. My old mobile phone was a little Nokia handset which had been a bit dodgy from the word go - one of its little quirks was that whenever I used it for phone calls, the "6" key somehow kept being pressed. No, I don't know how. Either way, calls were constantly interrupted by beeping and at the end of the call I'd have a page of 6's to delete. Plus it only had text entry from the keypad, which meant it was slow and fiddly to use, and meant I didn't really get much use out of the non-phone functions.

My new phone is a Samsung Galaxy Trend, and it seems to be a lot closer to what I was actually wanting (which was a replacement for my old Palm m515 which could also make phone calls). Certainly it's far easier to use the calendar, note-taking and contacts features than it was on the Nokia. I don't think I'm likely to be using the web-based features of it all that much, though - while I'm at home, I'll use my computer for web browsing, and while I'm out, I'll either be driving, or if I'm on public transport, I'll be working on crochet.

2) I've started to work seriously on improving my performance as a housekeeper. I'm using a combination of Chorewars (to track what I've done, and how much I've "earned" for it - at a rate of 10c per chore) and Habit RPG (to keep up with the weekly and monthly chores and try to keep me up to a couple of daily targets). I'm trying to do 20 "chores" per day on weekdays, and 15 per day on weekends (which, at 10c per chore, means I'd be earning about $13 per week for the housework. Given that by setting my own pace previously I was averaging about $10 per 8 days, this means I'll be saving up for things off my wishlist a bit faster than I was before).

The not-so-good news:

1) Himself was home earlier in the week with a nasty cold/cough combination which I appear to have caught off him. Woke up this morning with a scratchy sore throat, and I'm feeling a bit flattened and dull. Hopefully it will burn through in the next couple of days. In the meantime, lots of peppermint tea, and maybe some lemon and honey later on. Oh, and lots of feeling very sorry for myself, always an essential part of being unwell.

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Current Mood: not a well bunny not a well bunny
Easy Fried Rice

The name is something of a misnomer, as fried rice is definitely easy in all its incarnations. This is the version I make when I have a bit of leftover rice as a result of overdoing the cooking in the week previous.

I tend to start with steamed rice, and if I have two takeaway food containers worth (or about four serves, in other words) then I have enough for frying up.

My usual ingredients for fried rice:

2 - 3 eggs, made up into a bit of an omelette (slice the omelette thinly once it's had a few minutes to cool - I'll generally make it first out of everything).
250g bacon rashers, rind removed and chopped up.
1 onion, diced finely
1 - 2 sticks celery, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, crushed or very finely chopped
1 tablespoon or so crushed ginger (as in, the stuff you get in a jar)
2 cups frozen peas, corn and carrot mix
approx 1/4 cup soy sauce
approx 4 cups chilled steamed rice

Optional extra ingredients:

* Tinned champignon mushrooms (either whole or sliced)
* Chopped cooked chicken, beef, lamb, pork etc
* 1 tablespoon or so crushed/chopped lemon grass (the stuff you get in a tube)
* 3 spring onions (green onions), sliced
* Chopped chives
* Chopped coriander (cilantro, for our American friends)
* 1 - 3 tablespoons lime juice

Start by making up your omelette - break the eggs into a bowl, mix them up together and add about 1 tablespoon or so of water per egg. Mix together a bit more, then pour into the bottom of a greased frypan or wok (I don't own a wok, so I use a frypan) over a low heat. Slosh the egg around so it covers as much of the surface as possible, then scrape the cooked bits into the middle until you run out of runny egg (tilt the frypan to ensure the runny stuff doesn't clump into the middle of the omelette). Let it sit until the top looks mostly solid, then flip and cook the other side. Don't worry if your omelette breaks up at this stage, because it's only going to get chopped up anyway. Flip all the bits over, cook for about 1 minute on the other side, or until you're pretty sure it's cooked through, then pull it out of the frypan and put it into a spare bowl to cool.

Now, put the chopped up bacon into the frypan, and cook over low heat until it's starting to render up its fat. This is a good way of using up cheap, fatty bacon, because the grease gets used to cook everything else, and the meat just melds into things nicely.

Next, add the onion. If you're doing this like me, and prepping things as you go, you'll be chopping the onion as the bacon is rendering, and lo and behold, just as you've got the first half of the onion chopped, the bacon will have yielded enough grease to ensure the onion doesn't stick to the pan! If you're prepping things first, cook the onion until it's starting to turn transparent before adding the next ingredient.

Next up is the celery. Again, if you're prepping as you go, the onion will be just starting to get transparent as you add it. You want this to cook until it's just starting to soften a bit, so about 3 minutes.

Next, add the garlic and the ginger together. If you're adding lemon grass and/or meat, now is the time to put them in as well. Stir well to make sure everything is blended together.

Next, stir in the frozen vegetables. If you're adding champignon mushrooms, make sure you quarter the whole ones, and throw the liquid in as well. This stage is going to take about 5 minutes, because you're wanting to make certain the vegetables are all cooked (as well as breaking up any frozen lumps of them that have slipped in).

While the veges are cooking, start looking at the rice. If, like me, you don't rinse your rice before cooking it by the absorption method, what you'll have is a bunch of solid lumps of starchy rice sitting in your containers. The easiest way to deal with this, and get the grains separated is to rinse the whole lot under HOT running water in a sieve, breaking up the lumps by hand if necessary (just squeeze gently under the water and they'll fall apart). Also, take a few seconds to slice your omelette (thought we'd forgotten that, hadn't you?) reasonably thinly. Basically, you're looking at bits of egg about the size of everything else.

Add the soy sauce to the frypan now, and stir well. Yes, it looks like a lot of soy sauce, but don't worry, the rice will soak it all up.

Speaking of which, now is the time to dump in the rice. If you want to be careful, add it in spoonful by spoonful. If you don't mind wiping down the stove later (who am I fooling? You'll be wiping down the stove even if you are careful), just dump it all in at once. Stir well to combine and heat through. You'll notice the rice goes a nice brown colour, which it's supposed to.

This is the point where you add the omelette (as well as the sliced green onions, the chives, the coriander and the lime juice if you're using those). Stir briefly to combine and heat everything through, then turn off the heat and serve. The recipe I've listed makes about four to six servings, and keeps well in the fridge overnight if you want some for lunch tomorrow. (I've no idea whether it lasts longer than that, because it usually doesn't in our household!).

The frypan you use for this recipe needs to be BIG, and even with a large frypan, you'll still probably wind up wiping rice off the stove and its surroundings - this is a recipe which gets everywhere. But it's fun to make, and it's a useful way of using up leftovers. (Incidentally, my other favourite for using up leftover rice is kedgeree, but it requires me to have some smoked cod on hand in the freezer, and also Steve doesn't particularly like it. Fried rice he likes).

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Current Mood: cheerful cheerful
Chocolate Hazelnut Drink

(Because I like this one and want to share it with people).

Take a mug, and put in two generous teaspoons of Nutella or equivalent choc-hazelnut spread. Add milk (I use full cream milk, because if I'm going to have an indulgence, it's going to be an indulgence, godsdamnit!) to the point where it just covers the spread at the bottom of the mug (so your mug is going to be at most 1/4 full).

Stir until smooth. Add more cold milk to the halfway mark. Stir again until combined. Now fill the mug to the top and stir again. You'll probably have small lumps of chocolate-hazelnut spread here and there, and you'll almost certainly have some smears of it along the edges of the mug as well as all the stuff which was on the spoon which hasn't combined into things. Don't worry.

Put the mug into the microwave, and heat on high for 1 minute. Take it out and stir again - this time, stir until all the chocolate hazelnut spread on the spoon melts and dissolves into the milk.

Put the mug back into the microwave and heat on high for another minute. Stir again to combine, and drink. If you're really feeling indulgent, and have the appropriate bits and pieces, you can top it with whipped cream and maybe some drinking chocolate dusted on top, but it's lovely just the way it is now. Enjoy.

(If you don't have a microwave, you can probably make it on the stovetop, but you'll need to watch it like a hawk - milk tends to scorch easily.)

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Current Mood: meh meh
How To Make A Nice Cup Of Coffee [1]

(I'm having one of my periodic fits of "I should try and post something every day to get into the habit again". So this is something I've had sitting around on the hard drive for a while now. Enjoy).

Take a mug. Into it put 2 teaspoons of drinking chocolate powder. Add 1 teaspoon of Moccona Hazelnut flavoured instant coffee, 1 teaspoon of Moccona Classic medium roast instant coffee, and 2 teaspoons of coffee crystals (large crystal form raw sugar - you could substitute raw or brown sugar to taste, but white sugar doesn't quite taste right[2]). Add about 2 tablespoons boiling water - enough to basically cover the bottom 1/5 of the mug, in other words. Stir until everything is pretty much dissolved (it won't be, and you'll find this out later, but it'll all look dissolved anyway).

Now top it up with milk. Whole milk, for preference (I figure if I'm going to have myself an indulgence, it's going to be a proper indulgence, thank you very much). If you have one of those fancy coffee makers which can froth the milk, top with hot milk[3]. For the rest of us, use cold milk. This is the point where you'll discover your components haven't properly dissolved. Stir well, until things are pretty well combined, anyway.

If you've used cold milk, you now turn to the miracle of modern engineering which is the microwave. Put the mug in there for one minute at standard temperature. Take it out. Stir some more. Put it back in for another minute. Stir again. By this time, the coffee is hot, smells wonderful, and tastes great when you drink it. If it isn't hot enough, you probably need maybe another thirty seconds or more in the microwave. Stir after each cooking period.

Drink, and enjoy. Limit yourself to one per day, lest the caffiend visit his hallmark of the withdrawal headache on you the following morning (also, it's hard to get people to take you seriously when you're bouncing off the walls).

(The big secret here is making the coffee with milk rather than water. The milk smooths out a lot of the bitterness, and it adds a bit of extra sugar of its own. This is another reason for using whole milk. This is also at least part of why the coffee you get from a coffee shop tastes better than the stuff you make at home - watch the baristas sometime, and you'll see they tend to be making the coffees mostly with milk rather than water).

[1] In my opinion, anyway.
[2] Coffee tastes better with the touch of molasses in either raw or brown sugar - it seems to smooth out a bit of the bitterness. White sugar adds sweetness without the smoothing effect of the molasses.
[3] Although, if you have one of those fancy coffee makers which can froth the milk, you're probably not going to be faffing around with instant coffee in the first place. In which case, mine's a hazelnut mocha with two sugars.

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Current Mood: meh, need coffee meh, need coffee
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