Saturday, January 28, 2012

Super Duper Moist Lemon Cake


Australia Day, an excellent day for a picnic at a friend's property where we sit and gaze at the rolling hills and listen to the wind. A place where kids run across fields, climb fallen blackwoods, or go wading in the creek. A place where we stop being city dwellers just for a moment, and instead rest on the land which supports us and holds us and whispers secrets beyond hearing. If only we knew how to listen, we might just understand what it has to say.

I have just read Strandloper by Alan Garner, which tells the story of escaped convict, William Buckley. Buckley lived for thirty years with a local indigenous tribe, who recognised in him their deceased elder, Murrungurk. In Garner's version, having been through local initiation rites in England before his deportation, Buckley is initiated into the tribe and discovers deep resonances; the Dreaming is universal. Through the story, Garner suggests that all healthy people are able to embody the sacred in their every action, and recognise the spirituality of the land and their infinite dependence on it; and he suggests that ruptures in the Dreaming caused by the violence of colonialism must be answered by a new Dreaming, yet to unfold. As to how it will, with the loss of the ancestors who teach the art of listening, well, that is a mystery. Perhaps Strandloper is a good place to start.

It's a beautiful, difficult, thought provoking and sad book; I came away with a deep sense of loss both for the indigenous tribes which were ripped apart by colonialism, and for my own lack of a traditional heritage. A sense of connection with the land and knowledge of the rituals associated with it have been lost to so many of us thanks to generations of successive displacement; but loving and paying attention to one particular place over many years must be a beginning point for a new relationship with the land. And for my family, our particular place is our friend's property. 'This,' said my three year old, 'is my favourite super duper place' , and that just about sums it up for me.

On Thursday, as I quietly mused about place and belonging, seven of us stood silent in the derelict old shack, peeking through holes in the windows and walls and watching a wedge tailed eagle circle lower and lower as it investigated the remains of a dead wallaby. Finding it rather too far gone, it soared upwards on a thermal and disappeared; and we, praying that the wind would soon change and the wallaby no longer haunt us, unpacked our lunch.

Reflection always makes me hungry; and, like food for reflective thought, food for the block needs to be sturdy, as the only access is up a severely rutted old logging track. Having just scored a big bag of lemons from a neighbour, I brought a heavy lemon cake. It may not be the most ecologically responsible food nor is it particularly connected with the land, but to this European born on the other side of the world from her ancestors, it is gently restorative, nevertheless.

Super Duper Moist Lemon Cake

- 200g unsalted butter at room temperature
- 200g + 4 tbs granulated coconut palm sugar
- 180g ground almonds
½ tsp baking powder
- 2 large lemons
- 4 eggs

Preheat the oven to 160°. Position an oven rack in the centre of the oven. Line a loaf tin with baking paper, or butter it well.

Slice one of the lemons crosswise into circles. Place it in a small saucepan with 2 tbs of the sugar and 4 tbs water. Bring it to a gentle simmer, and let it bubble away for 5 to 7 minutes, shaking from time to time, until the liquid has almost disappeared and the lemon becomes sticky. Do not let it burn! Take it off the heat and leave to cool.

Whisk together the ground almonds and the baking powder.

Place the butter and 200g of the sugar into a mixmaster and beat until they are fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, until all is combined. Zest one of the lemons and chop the zest finely (or use the tiny holes on a grater). Add the zest to the mixture and beat once more.

Remove the bowl from the mixer. Gently fold in the ground almonds and baking powder, scraping from the bottom to keep the mixture as light as possible. Place it into the prepared loaf tin.

Arrange the lemon slices along the top of the cake, and drizzle any lightly toffee'd liquids over them. Slip into the oven, and bake for 50 minutes or until a knife slips out clean.

While the cake is in the oven, place the juice of the zested lemon and the last 2 tbs of sugar into the same saucepan as was used to cook the lemon slices. Warm very slightly, just until the sugar has dissolved. When the cake is done, take it out of the oven and poke it with a toothpick left right and centre. Now spoon the lemon and sugar mixture over the cake, letting each spoonful be absorbed before adding the next one. Leave the cake to cool in its tin.

Delicious on its own, or with an artery-blocking splodge of double cream.

Adapted from a recipe in The Kitchen Diaries by Nigel Slater.

(Local: lemons, eggs. Mysterious provenance: ground almonds. Not so local: baking powder. From Indonesia, but organic, delicious, full of healthy minerals, and far more sustainable than cane sugar: coconut palm sugar.)

Strandloper The Kitchen Diaries: A Year in the Kitchen

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Chicken Meatballs with a Spectacular Marjoram Sauce


The funniest book I read last year was Lily Brett's You Gotta Have Balls (also published as Uncomfortably Close). Ruth Rothwax longs for a group of supportive women with whom she can meet regularly and talk about empowerment and mutual cooperation. Instead, she gets an ageing father, Edek; his enormously busty Lycra-clad Polish girlfriend, Zofia; and Zofia's weedy hanger-on, Walentyna. Among other skills, Zofia has an incredible knack with balls: meatballs, chicken balls, vegetable balls and, one presumes, Edek's balls.

Like so many good comic novels, You Gotta Have Balls has a serious side. Edek is a Holocaust survivor from Poland, and much of the book is about the ramifications sixty years later. Edek is determined to live exuberantly. For him, each day is a bonus and he is open to all the wonderful possibilities life holds. On the other hand, Ruth, a child of survivors, is earnest and hardworking, stifling her emotions and preferences in overcompensation for all her parents went through. Like the children of so many survivors, good fortune, and life in general, weigh heavily on her; and Brett explores the tensions between the generations gently and well.

However, she really shines in the comic passages. As I read page after page of Edek urging Ruth to try the balls (you gotta have these balls, Ruthie, these balls are unbelievable), I found myself collapsed with laughter at a cafe in Lygon Street, wiping the tears from my eyes and being looked at rather snootily by the unamused patrons at the next table. I can't be entirely sure what annoyed them most: perhaps it was my sitting alone or my grotty clothes? Or could it have been the great snorts of badly suppressed laughter that rudely punctuated their interminable boasting about their holidays?

Whatever it was, it caused a stir and the waitress came over to check that I was okay. She had never, she said, seen anyone laugh at a book like that; but somewhat unbelievably she didn't write down the title. If I saw someone guffawing in a public place over a book, especially someone who wasn't drinking, I would have run over and made sure I had the title down pat.

Maybe laughing aloud at a book is weird and the incurious waitress is more the norm, yet I know which I prefer. Anyway, it can be useful. Years ago, I had to sit in the passports office for several hours. I had with me Neal Stephenson's The Big U, also hilarious, and as I read and laughed and read some more, the section I was sitting in cleared out and I found myself alone in an otherwise crowded waiting room. For that matter, if you ever want a compartment of four seats to yourself on the tram, I can recommend reading a funny book, and laughing – or breastfeeding, of course.

In homage to Edek and Zofia and laughing in public places, here is my recipe for balls. What follows is a very plain chicken meatball; the ball is no more than a vehicle for the scrumptious marjoram sauce, which is not quite salsa verde and not quite salsa agresto but certainly sits in the range of both these lovely sauces. Marjoram is a sweet and delicate herb whose flavour is greatly diminished by cooking. So there is a little marjoram in the balls (think of it as a preliminary whisper), and a great deal of marjoram in the sauce (a fanfare of trumpets and a clashing of cymbals). Put them together, and you have music in your mouth.

The sauce is also good eaten with other meats and felafel; it can even be used as a strong dip. It tastes best the day you make it. The meatballs are enough for two meals for our family, so I make a half quantity of the sauce fresh for each meal. It takes about three minutes, hardly an effort.

Chicken Meatballs with Marjoram Sauce
The Balls
- 500g chicken mince
- 1 large red onion
- ⅓ cup marjoram
- good pinch of salt
- olive oil

Chop the onion and marjoram, or pulse chop them in the food processor, until they are very fine. Do not let them go to mush as you want a little texture. Mix them with the mince and a good pinch of salt, using your hands to knead it all through.

Form the mixture into small balls, 1½ to 2 tbs of mixture per ball. The balls will, if anything like mine, always resemble 3D trapezoids; clearly, I don't have the knack. You should get 16 to 20, depending on how large you make each one, of course. Place the balls onto a tray, cover with plastic film, and refrigerate until you are ready to cook.

To cook the balls, warm the olive oil in a wide skillet over medium heat. When it is reasonably hot, place the balls close together in the pan; they should all fit. Cook without moving them until the bases are golden. Then using a thin egg slide or similar, gently scrape under each ball and turn it onto one side. Continue to cook and turn, cook and turn, for about 15 minutes. When all the sides are golden, cut the largest ball open (like a good tailor, I'm assuming your balls are not identical) and check that it is cooked through. Keep them in a warm oven until you are ready to serve.

The Sauce
- 10 to 12 sage leaves, preferably from the tips of the plant
- 20 stalks flat leaf parsley
- two small handfuls of sweet marjoram
- 8 walnut halves
- 2 fat cloves of garlic
- 2 tbs balsamic vinegar
- 6 tbs olive oil
- a good pinch of sea salt

Ensure the herbs are clean and dry. Chop off the bottom half of the parsley stalks and discard. (Keep the top ends of the stalks as these are less fibrous but very tasty; no need to pick all the leaves off.) Peel the garlic. Throw all the ingredients into the small bowl of a food processor (or chop very finely) and whizz. Check for acidity; you may need a little more oil or vinegar. Scrape the sauce into a small bowl. It will be very thick and nubbly. This is enough sauce for all the balls; halve it if you intend to eat only half the balls today.

If you are making the balls for a party, form smaller balls and cook for less time; then arrange the balls in a single layer on a platter, and dot each ball with a delicious blob of sauce.

The Marjoram Sauce is adapted from a recipe in the intelligent, absorbing and absolutely delicious The Original Mediterranean Cuisine: Medieval Recipes for Today by Barbara Santich, which is, sadly for you, out of print.

(Local: onion, marjoram, sage, parsley, walnuts, garlic, olive oil. Mysterious provenance, but free range and chemical free: chicken mince. Not so local: balsamic vinegar, salt.)

You Gotta Have Balls