Wednesday, April 30, 2008

April 30, 2008: Rosemary and cheese bites

In this week we had a special guest speaker in my workplace seminar series, so I thought I'd bring along some snacks. I've been trying to think of a few things that aren't just cakes or biscuits - partly for variety, but also in the hope that non-bakers in the group might feel comfortable volunteering their services. So I gathered together some dip and crackers and found time left over to try baking these rosemary and cheese biscuits anyway! The recipe is from Anna at Morsels & Musings.

What I didn't notice on first examination of the recipe is that the only wet ingredient in the list is a mere tablespoon of sour cream! I had enormous trouble pulling this dry powdery mix together and ended up doubling the quantity of sour cream. This meant that my biscuits were less shortbread-y (as Anna's were) and more akin to a chewy cookie, though obviously they had a savoury flavour. I also used only about one and a half teaspoons of dough per biscuit for small bites that could be flexibly shared amongst a small or large crowd. (It can be difficult to predict just how many people will turn up!)

Straight from the oven, these were a troublingly compulsive snack - so soft and warm and cheese-flavoured. It was difficult to stop at one test bite (...OK, one test bite per tray! And then one or two more) and save enough for the group. They are not quite as addictive at room temperature but were still met with a warm reception. One audience member whispered "Pass these along - I can't stop eating them!" at a volume that I wasn't supposed to overhear, and a couple of other people requested the recipe.

So, bake these at your own risk. And make sure you can guiltlessly eat them on the spot if you do.

For the recipe, visit Morsels & Musings.

April 27, 2008: Shakahari IV

As a gesture of gratitude for hosting her, Katy kindly bought us a meal at a restaurant of our choice and we took little more than seconds to choose Shakahari.

I declared that a shared plate of avocado rolls was mandatory. They were as exquisite as ever - buttery avocado and soft eggplant, firmer capsicum, crisp golden tempura batter and a slightly tangy herb sauce. Entrees don't get much better than this.

When we recently wrote about tempeh, Sarah mentioned how much she liked the tempeh laksa at Shakahari. Even though we'd never seen it on the menu ourselves, Michael had said earlier in the evening how much he'd like laksa and he got lucky - there it was on the menu tonight! This is the Green Laksa Siam ($18.50) - green tea soba noodles, spinach, mushroom and sprouts in a coconut broth of Thai herbs and spices; it is topped with seitan, tofu and tempeh strips. It was a large meal, even for Michael, and with quite a spicy kick.

I went for the Satay Legend ($17.50), not seen since Jason ordered it on our very first visit to this restaurant. These are "deep fried skewers of bean curd, seitan, onion and capsicum dressed with an addictive mildly spiced peanut sauce. It comes with pickles and turmeric rice." The satay sticks certainly lived up to the description, and my best guess is that the pickles were red cabbage, ginger and radish. These earthy slices of ginger were something entirely different to the slivers served with sushi!

Katy's main course was the Croquette Madam Fang that I had last time - how could she choose anything else after I raved about the kumquat chilli sauce? Also on the menu were Angel Jewels (a tagine of red quinoa, roasted vegetables and toasted almonds), the Bandit Queen (a plate of Indian delights), the Rustichella Linguini (the impressive pasta of Michael's previous meal) and Black Olive Passion (a most fusion-like paella incorporating dashi, olives, chickpeas, cashews and lemon).

I don't know quite how I did it, but I persuaded Katy and Michael that we could go thirds on a dessert. Not just any dessert, but a cherry chocolate pudding ($12.50), with maraschino liquer flavoured mascarpone cream. Hot pudding, cold cream and luscious berry sauce - those few bites each were the perfect finish. (But I'm glad I wasn't pushing myself through an entire serving at this stage.)

Another dinner at Shakahari, another rave review. It'd almost be boring if it wasn't so darn GOOD.

(You can also read our first, second and third raves.)

April 25-27, 2008: Melbourne, the land of chocolate

I knew that whenever Katy eventually made it to Melbourne, we'd have to go on a chocolate-themed excursion. I initially planned to join an organised tour but when they were booked out on our only available day, I figured I could easily plan my own. All it took was a notebook and 15 minutes on the internet!

To prevent any incidence of chocolate fatigue, we actually got a head start by eating two chocolatey desserts out on the town before the Day of Chocolate.
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Our first stop was Cacao in St Kilda, towards the end of our Friday visit to the south side. I sampled three:
  • Rose: milk chocolate ganache flavoured with rose water, crumbled roasted pistachios and dipped in white chocolate.
  • Ruby: blood orange caramel filling and dark chocolate.
  • Safran: citrus caramel ganache, milk chocolate ganache with infused saffron, dipped in dark chocolate.
They were all beautiful to look at and had a lovely creamy texture. However I found the special flavours too subtle and the chocolate too sweet.

________


Hours later, after dinner at Guru Da Dhaba, Mike and Jo-Lyn coaxed us to San Churro in Fitzroy for dessert. Katy and I shared a plate of the eponymous churros with dark chocolate dipping sauce. They've really perfected that cocoa-rich semi-sweet flavour.

________

Then came Sunday, the Day of Chocolate. With six shops on the itinerary, some focus and restraint was going to be needed. How would I successfully differentiate between each shop's offerings without succumbing to either chocolate fatigue or gluttony-induced illness? I decided that at each stop I would sample one item that combined chocolate with orange.
________

Haigh's in the grand Block Arcade offered a Mandarin Cream for about $1.50. I liked the dark chocolate here and though I wasn't overly impressed with the filling at the time, this proved to be one of the better bites of the day.

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The Chocolate Box goes more for bright novelty and gift chocolates. Beyond the toys and hampers there is a display of individual truffles and other chocolates though they too are dominated by novelty shapes rather than flavours (marzipan pig, anyone?).

Still, I did manage to locate a Jaffe ($2.25). It was frosted by pretty but harshly sweet sugar crystals and the interior wasn't any better - too sugary with cheap orange flavouring and not enough cocoa.
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I only recently discovered the Chokolait. Hub (in the Hub arcade) by accident. These folks were delightfully friendly and we decided to stay on for tea. Shame about the website. They had some tasty but messy-looking glazed orange slices on offer for $2.80 apiece, but instead I chose a little dark orange chocolate for $1.50. It had the right dark flavour but I couldn't taste the orange at all. The only evidence that they hadn't forgotten it completely was the texture of orange peel as I chewed.

________

Though it's one of my favourites, we didn't spend long at Koko Black. I just ordered my orange segment ($1.25) and savoured it while we walked. The orange has great texture and flavour and I'm definitely a fan of their dark chocolate - I just wish there was more of it on this treat. Then I suppose it wouldn't be as pretty, would it?

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Two thirds of the way through and we needed a palate cleanser. Steamed dumplings at Camy's hit the spot.
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Patchi is a swanky shop in Melbourne Central with lots of expensive glass ornaments on display, as well as their chocolates. Just about everything is praline based, and the most choc-orange item I could find was the Casablanca ($1.20) - "milk chocolate with giandula [apparently this is chocolate with hazelnut and almond paste], hazelnut pieces and bitter orange peel". It was an excellent quality milk chocolate with hazelnuts, but I didn't detect the orange. I think their prevailing nut obsession is a bit beyond my unrefined palate.

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Last stop, Max Brenner. Katy was indeed looking fatigued but I resolutely shouldered my way through the crowds to the display cabinet. Hmmm, nothing orange. Besides, it's not possible to buy anything less than 4 specialty chocolates for $8.50. Then I found my hint of orange on the shelves...

$18? No sale, Max.
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What a day! What a fabulous, decadent day. It was interesting to try a few chocolatiers that I hadn't visited before, and I was surprised to see Haigh's (which I've previously been skeptical of) and Koko Black (where I'm almost a regular) come out on top.

If it isn't already obvious, I'm very much a chocolate lover without being a chocolate connoisseur so these reviews reflect little more than my personal taste. What are your favourite Melbourne chocolates? Is there anywhere great that I've still not visited? Disagree with any of my judgements? Lay it on me and spread it thick.

(Of course this isn't my first hit of Melbourne chocolate. You can also review our previous brushes with Cacao, San Churro, Koko Black and Max Brenner.)

April 26, 2008: Bluecorn II

The Eels' rather strange combination of autobiographical documentary and rock 'n' roll show lured us (and some friends) across the river to St Kilda to The Palais* on a chilly Saturday night. While St Kilda is no doubt chock full of exciting new restaurants for us to visit, we get there so rarely (and we loved it so much last time) that we couldn't resist a return visit to Blue Corn. Part of the appeal of our previous visit had been the sunny, open courtyard, so I wasn't sure whether it would be quite as wondrous with the temperature in single figures.

I was even more apprehensive when we were ushered through to the courtyard. Fortunately, Blue Corn enclose their courtyard in the winter and we didn't even need our coats. We started things off with cocktails - a sour apple margarita ($15) for Cindy and a raspberry mule ($16) for me. Cindy's margarita didn't taste much different to regular apple juice but by the time she was half way through she was feeling its effects, so it can't have been alcohol-free. My mule was a bit more noticeably alcoholic, with the lime and ginger beer providing some sweetness.

Cindy and I both decided to order something different to our previous trip. I went for the roast vegie tacos, with achiote tomato rice and black beans. The tacos were full of juicy vegetables, and rich with delicious cheese. The accompanying sour cream and lime added a bit of pizazz, and the whole thing hit the spot.

Cindy went to the specials board and opted for the vegan tostadas, with roast vegies, cashews, salsa and guacamole. (You'll have to excuse the dodgy photo - I'm still figuring out our new camera.) The guacamole was the star of the show - fresh and flavoursome, and the thin eggplant layer was tender and delicious. Cindy was hoping for a bit more crispy tortilla though and, by the end of the evening, she was happily raiding a friend's plate of nachos.

I'm not sure if it was just the weather, but Blue Corn didn't quite live up to our memories - the food was really quite good, but our first visit was so wonderful that we wanted everything to be outstanding. Still, I don't mean to be too critical - we really did enjoy the food, the drinks and the atmosphere - it's still the only rival to Los Amates for delicious Melbourne Mexican.

Read about our previous trip to Blue Corn here.

*The dome pictured at the top is of course part of the Palais, and not the adjustable roof of Blue Corn's courtyard.

April 26, 2008: Bread-baking bonanza


So you know the people I work with are cool, right? Well, their families are cool too.

Stu is the son of one of my colleagues - he was responsible for the muesli, quinoa salad and multi-layered cake we enjoyed at the Prom. He's clearly a fine all-round cook but something he has spent quite some time perfecting is bread baking and all things yeast related. Over the past months, little samples of what he's made have turned up at work for us to taste - white bread, bread with olives, even bagels! But Stu's generosity extends further than sending in leftovers, further even than cooking for our camping trip - he offered to host a bread baking day in his home to teach a few folks the tricks he's learned in the past year or two.

So Cass, Yung and I crossed town on this miserable-looking Saturday to a cosy home with a comforting fire and well-prepped kitchen. Stu had everything at the ready, including a timetable co-ordinating the dough-making, resting, kneading and baking schedules of each recipe. He is the ideal teacher: enthusiastic but never overbearing, meticulous but flexible, and a keen learner himself. Take a look at what we made:



No-Knead Bread. After appearing in the New York Times over a year ago, this recipe circulated the world wide web a good three times, leaving a trail of rave reviews in its wake. Although there's no need to knead, the dough does need a big rest so Stu prepared it earlier... a whole day earlier. By his account this recipe is infuriatingly good, leaving open the question "Why bake anything else at home?" Indeed, this was a fabulous white loaf with a golden crust and soft, open crumb. It was heavenly just dabbed in olive oil when it first emerged from the oven; it was notably firmer but still impressive for breakfast the following morning.



Red onion and green olive rolls. Unusually, this recipe begins by making a roux with the chopped onions before introducing the flour and later the yeast. The resulting rolls are just scrumptious - moist and buttery from the oil that the onions are cooked in, while the onion pieces themselves are so soft, so sweet. Katy and Michael thought they were done after the no-knead bread for breakfast, but one taste of these rolls and they instantly found more space in their stomachs.



Garlic bread. This was the most involved recipe of the day; the first one we worked on and the last one to emerge from the oven. The ciabatta-style loaf is good, but the stand-out element is the garlic. A whopping three heads of the stuff are browned in oil, then caramelised in balsamic vinegar, sugar and rosemary. This was my job and it would be fair to say that the aromas drove me wild with desire. Somehow I managed to save this one for over 24 hours before savouring it with soup.



Five grain loaf. This bread is a real filler, comprising a mix of white, whole wheat and rye flours, along with cooked grains - Stu had pre-cooked lentils, glutenous black rice and boiled wheat grains soaked in red wine all lined up! It's all sweetened with a subtle dose of honey and treacle. I popped my half-loaf in the freezer and am looking forward to thin toasted slices of it, washed down with tea.



Bagels. This was the final, just-in-case-we-have-time recipe. The dough was simple to put together and the resting/kneading stages were quite typical. The key variation is that the bagels are boiled for just 10 seconds before being baked. I initially froze these too but have since rescued them, toasted them and slathered them in avocado, lime juice, salt and pepper. Given how little the recipe deviated from a standard bread I didn't expect much but these were as good as any bagel I've eaten, even in New York.

Naturally I was always looking forward to this day of hanging out with Stu, watching him cook up storm and taking home a bagful of goodies, but I didn't expect to want to make any of these recipes again. Cooking with yeast is just so sloooow and I can always just go to a trendy bakery instead. Having tasted the stunning fresh results I'm now actually quite keen to spend the coming winter weekend afternoons reading, kneading and filling the house with those incredible aromas.

April 25, 2008: Guru Da Dhaba

Jo-Lyn's Anzac Day Indian yearnings inspired us on an impromptu visit to Guru Da Dhaba in Fitzroy. Mike and Jo weren't as enamoured with De Orchid as we were, meaning that the quest for outstanding local Indian continues. The smells wafting from the corner of Johnston and Gore streets have tempted me every time I've walked past, but we'd somehow avoided making the trip until after we'd sampled almost every other Indian restaurant in the neighbourhood.

The menu is inspired by the dhaba street eateries of India - vegos are well catered for with 16 curries to choose from (aside: I've developed the theory - following our trip to Red Pepper - that Indian restaurants with beef-free menus are likely to be higher quality. For the record: there's no beef at Guru da Dhaba). Cindy, typically, went for the malai kofta ($9.90). She was a little disappointed with the kofta - it was a little floury and lacking texture. The sauce too was adequate without being particularly memorable. I went for a baingan bhartha - a roast eggplant curry that we really need to find a good recipe for. It was much more impressive than Cindy's kofta - richly spiced and silky, perfect to mush onto the well-cooked garlic naan that accompanied it.

Mike has decided that the real test of an Indian restaurant is its palak paneer and declared Guru da Dhaba's the best he'd bought in Melbourne. So it was a mixed performance: ordinary kofta, excellent eggplant and phenomenal paneer. We might need a second visit to come up with a definitive opinion.

Update (29/6/09): Guru da Dhaba has closed down, and has yet to be replaced...

Address: 240 Johnston Street
Ph: 9486-9155
BYO
Price: Veg curries ~ $10
Website: www.gurudadhaba.citysearch.com.au

April 25, 2008: The Galleon Cafe II

A mere three hours after Michael and I returned from the Prom, my high school buddy from Brisbane, Katy, arrived in Melbourne for a holiday. Yes, we were excited to spend some time together but you wouldn't have known it from our demeanours. She was as exhausted as we were, having spent the morning at work before making the interstate journey. I pulled together a meal and we all did our best to create a catch-up conversation before retiring to the sleep of the near-dead.

On Thursday we shared a hasty breakfast and went our separate ways to honour other commitments . Finally, on Friday, Katy and I had the entire day stretched out in front of us to do whatever we pleased, together. I decided to take her to St Kilda, and before the shopping and the eating and the bikers and the blondes in big sunglasses, I wanted to show her the community garden.

It was beautiful, showing even more colour and character than I remembered from my past evening visit for the first Bloggers' Banquet. Having just set up her own little herb garden at home, Katy was full of admiration for Vegout's efforts and happily soaked up the calm before hitting Acland St.

I steered us towards the Galleon for lunch. It was as busy as on my last visit; we waited about 10 minutes for a table (outside, in the cold and the cigarette smoke) and I crossed my fingers that the now-hungry Katy would ultimately judge it to be worth the delay.

We were seated at a table already occupied by two Nicole Richie wannabes, and sound and movement whirled around us. Trying to see it through Katy's eyes, I wasn't sure whether Grandma's old furniture was as cheerful and cute as I thought it was.

Katy's cappuccino arrived with surprising speed, and she pointed out the wall ornaments that she liked as she sipped. The menu was as varied and appetising as I remembered. I ordered the pikelets I previously pined for ($8.50, with strawberries and lemon curd) and they were gorgeous. A cheeky choice for lunch, but light enough to rejoice in and not regret later.

Katy swooned over the sweet potato, basil and feta hash browns, as I did last time. In spite of my few misgivings, it was a brilliant start to a grey but lovely afternoon. Window shopping, foot massages, chocolate (which deserves its own post), and a long walk along the pier and shoreline in our candy-coloured coats (her red to my pink); it was all accompanied by much-needed talk of the important and the frivolous.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

April 20-23, 2008: Wilsons Promontory

How cool are the people I work with? Let me tell you. When two of us admitted over lunch in February that we weren't really campers, the wheels were set in motion for a camping trip that no-one could refuse. Three days in Wilsons Promontory with a choice of tent or cabin for shelter, walks and rests and games and chatting (and swimming and kayaking for the brave!). And how cool is my boss? When he found out about the planned trip, he not only packed a swag to join us; he packed 7 bottles of wine and insisted he'd find a way of reimbursing our accommodation costs. It seemed that even the gods couldn't stop us from having a good time, and they didn't even try, giving us unpredictably fine weather for the duration.

So on Sunday, Tracy squashed Mike, Michael, tents, pillows, food and wine and clothes and me into her car and we set off. The first stop was made after less than a kilometre - we needed lunch from Dench...

Mike snagged the last two vegetarian savoury items in all their buttery deliciousness. They could only be trumped by a bomboloni stuffed with lemon custard.

As the afternoon dragged on we closed in on the Prom, arriving at dusk and hastily pitching our tents. We retreated to the spacious living area of the shared cabin for a dinner of room temperature spiced chickpeas, packaged roti, red wine and then port served in plastic cups.

I'll admit that my first night in our tent wasn't particularly comfortable or restful, but it was difficult to be grumpy when there was this for breakfast...

That's home made muesli, contributed by Stu and Jane!

And then we walked, eating spiced chickpea sandwiches for lunch...

... and muesli bars thoughtfully prepared by Jo-Lyn and packed in with Mike.

We had been warned not to feed the local wildlife, with signs repeatedly warning that wombats have destroyed tents at a single whiff of food.

Michael thought he was manipulating this situation to his advantage when he used an icecream to coax a rosella onto this arm, but discovered he was the manipulated one when he no longer had a spare hand to switch the food to!

There was another brush with the wildlife on our evening walk.





Dinner was a collaborative affair. First up was Mark's camping trick - egg in a bag. This dish involved pouring 3 eggs, a splash of milk and omelette fillings of your choice into a Ziploc bag. The bag is sealed and then tossed into boiling water until the egg is almost set.

There were plenty of skeptics among us. Would the bag split? What if it melted into the water, or into the food? But egg-in-a-bag was a roaring success.

Next up was a stunning Moroccan feast: couscous, a quinoa salad by Stu, Beth's own version of the chickpea thing, and our fennel, pumpkin and eggplant tagine.

Much later, after several games of 'Werewolf', Stu impressed everyone again with this incredible multi-layered cake. If this is camp food, I might just permanently pitch my tent in Stu's backyard.


The next day? More great muesli.

More sandwiches.

More muesli bars - these are the date and tahini ones, with added dried cherries.

And of course, more walks.

I could get used to this. Except that my camera broke, and we had to return to work. (The boss's wine supply was exhausted, after all.) We folded ourselves back into Tracy's car and to prolong the holiday, just a little, we resolved to stop by every smalltown op shop we encountered on the way home. Amongst the crazy and kitsch I found some kitchenware to call my own.

This pretty plate set me back only $2.50.

Tracy's eagle eye spotted this one, but she kindly allowed me to possess it (for only $5!).

In some ways, the holiday had only just begun - I had an unproductive one-day working week on Thursday before the Anzac Day weekend arrived. And boy, did I do some eating! Stay tuned for much, much more.