Monday, September 12, 2011

Pear and Almond Cake

Last week started out so well. I spent the weekend away with a group of women performing a rite of passage for a cherished thirteen year old; I found a snakes head fritillary at a country market; I bought the most beautiful tea cosy in the world; then I came home.

And the world went to pieces. I learned that a friend’s mother died; she needs her mother more than most people need their mothers; this death is appalling and not to be borne; and yet it must be borne. Meanwhile, it was the anniversary of my own mother’s death; I heard some difficult news from an old friend; the kids had threadworm; and a few other things went so deeply, sharply wrong that I was given Veuve Cliquot and sent flowers from Berlin. The extraordinary extravagance of these actions suggests just how pear-shaped my week turned: believe me, I am not in the habit of drinking French champagne nor of indulging in massive bunches of tulips.

But I’m tired of illness and death and worry and care; I’ve had too much of it. So instead of wallowing, I shed a few tears then turned my attention to cake. When life feels impossible, I figure one may as well have something decent to nibble on.

I needed an easy cake that could be whizzed in the food processor with very little effort from me. Preferably it would use up more than a few eggs since our chooks just won’t stop laying (do Isa Browns ever moult?!), and possibly too the pears from our tree that I stewed back in January with a good shake of cinnamon and which have been gathering permafrost in our freezer ever since.

So I went to the recipe books and flicked until I found what I was hoping for. And what a beauty it is! I varied Nigella's recipe for damp apple and almond cake, itself a variation on Claudia Roden’s classic orange and almond cake, by changing the fruit once more from apples to pears. And when I took a bite I realised instantly that it was quite possibly the best cake I have made in a long lifetime of baking. All this for a new recipe on a Tuesday afternoon, shoved carelessly in the oven while I crooked a phone on my shoulder and wept.

Tulips and champagne; pear cake and pain; and a bucketload of tears. What a week.

Pear and Almond Cake

- 8 eggs
- 325g ground almonds
- 375g or so stewed pears with cinnamon
- 275g golden caster sugar
- a squeeze of lemon
- 40g flaked almonds

Grease and line a 25cm spring form pan. Preheat the oven to 180°C.

Place everything bar the flaked almonds into a food processor, and whizz until you have a batter. Pour the resulting goop into the pan. Sprinkle with flaked almonds. Slip into the oven.

Bake for 40 minutes or until golden and a cake tester comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin on a baking rack. Eat plain for afternoon tea or any time you need; it is also lovely with double cream.

Adapted from a recipe by Nigella Lawson in her terrific book, Feast: Food that celebrates life, itself a variation on Claudia Roden’s orange and almond cake in her classic, The Book of Middle Eastern Food. Incidentally, between eggs, pears and almonds from our garden, and lemons from over the road, this could be a very economical cake; sadly, I was too lazy to grind my own almonds.

(Local: almonds, pears, eggs, lemon. Not so local: cinnamon, sugar (fair trade).)

Feast: Food that celebrates life The New Book of Middle Eastern Food

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Celeriac, Chickpea and Cabbage Soup

I grew up gleaning food. We had different walks home from school depending whether it was the season for loquats, feijoas or cherry plums, or whether mum needed us to grab a few bay leaves. Even now, thirty years later, I still get an enormous kick out of finding food in public spaces; it's an even bigger kick in a built-up suburb like Brunswick.

This week, I've nipped bay leaves off a hedge a few blocks away; fennel seeds from an empty lot near the railway line; and parsley from garden escapees in the lanes near our house. It may not be enough to knit body and soul together, but it is more than enough to flavour soup.

And while spring may have sprung, today it is cold again, and we are promised more delightfully wintry weather for the weekend. As much as I cherish the wintry weather, even I must admit that it won't last forever; the season for soup is drawing to a close. This cold snap may be soup's last hurrah for a while; and so soup is what I have made.

Yet again, I have used celeriac to flavour the soup. It seems to have snuck its way into everything this year, possibly because it has been cheaper than potatoes at the organic shop. Here, it features with cabbage and chickpeas, its soft clean flavour lending brightness to what otherwise might have a cabbage-y boarding-house tendency. The soup is flavoured with the herbal gleanings and homemade stock; it is very economical, yet absolutely delicious. A nice piece of sourdough on the side, and you have a complete meal.

Celeriac, Chickpea and Cabbage Soup

- 4 tbs olive oil
- 5 anchovies (optional)
- 2 bay leaves
- 2 tsp fennel seeds, crushed
- 1 brown onion, chopped
- 800g celeriac
- 200g dried chickpeas, soaked overnight then cooked until soft
- 400g Savoy cabbage, shredded
- 1 litre hot chicken stock (recipe here)
- salt, pepper
- parsley, chopped
- parmesan (optional)

Warm the olive oil in a large soup pot. Add the anchovies and push them around with a wooden spoon for a minute or two, or until they have turned to paste. Add the bay leaves and fennel seeds, and cook for another minute. Add the onion and celeriac, turn the heat down, and cook until soft.

Add the cooked chickpeas, the cabbage, and the chicken stock, and season. Cover and simmer for half an hour or until the celeriac is cooked through.

Check for seasoning, sprinkle with parsley, and pass the parmesan.

Simplified from a recipe in the fantastic River Cafe Cookbook Green.

(Local: celeriac, chickpeas, cabbage, bay leaves (nipped from an overhanging tree a few blocks away), fennel seeds (scrounged from the railway line), parsley (picked from a garden escapee in a laneway since our chickens got to ours), olive oil. Victorian: onions, salt. Various provenances which I can't be bothered to list: chicken stock ingredients, anchovies (sustainably fished). La bella Italia: parmesan.)

The River Cafe Cookbook Green