Friday, July 30, 2010

July 18 & 27, 2010: Twice-shy chocolate crème brûlée

July's calendar recipe promised to be quite a treat - chocolate crème brûlée!  With my first under-the-grill vegan crème brûlée working out quite well last winter, I was pretty sure I could get this right.  The custard was no problem, essentially just chocolate and cream thickened and set with egg yolks.  But I found I had to re-learn the process of caramelising that toffee sugar crust.  (Incidentally, did you know that the crème brûlée's sugar crust was originally burned using not a blow torch, but using a specially designed iron? Very cool, but probably one for the 'inessential utensils' list.)

I was careful to ensure the grill was very hot before sliding the cold custard cups in, yet still found that the custard edges burned badly before the sugar had melted.  I unhappily scraped the top centimetre off each serving before digging in to the still-delicious custard. 

On my second attempt, where I developed a vegan and gluten-free version using coconut milk and arrowroot, I used a thicker layer of sugar in an attempt to protect the custard from burning.  It mostly worked, though I was reluctant to let the sugar brown to hard toffee and risk more charred custard.  The glassy surface you see above was nicely crunchy but really too thick and sweet and no complement to the rich chocolate at all.

And that's the conclusion I ultimately came to - both versions of the baked custard are magnificent and they don't need any kind of sugar coating.  Instead I'd be more inclined to seek out a fruity accompaniment in future.

Chocolate crème brûlée, original recipe

100g dark chocolate
200mL cream
2 egg yolks
1/3 cup castor sugar, plus extra to sprinkle
pinch of salt
1-2 tablespoons Cointreau

Preheat the oven to 120°C.  Arrange 3-4 ramekins or oven-proof cups in a roasting tray, and set a kettle full of water on to boil.

Gently melt together the chocolate and cream in a saucepan.  In a small-medium bowl, beat together the egg yolks and sugar until thick and pale.  Whisk in the chocolate mixture, salt and Cointreau.  Pour the custard into the cups, ideally straining it as you go, making sure to leave at least 1cm of space at the top.  (I found that my custards expanded in the oven and deflated again while cooling.)

Pour the boiling water from the kettle into the roasting tray so that the water comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Bake the custards for 25-30 minutes, until they're set through but still a little wobbly.  Allow the custards to cool on the bench and then chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

For the toffee top (which I don't especially recommend), sprinkle a teaspoon of castor sugar on each custard and swish it around gently to coat the top evenly. Bring a grill to its hottest heat and place the custards under it for a minute or two - the aim is to melt and brown the sugar without burning the custard.  Keep a close eye on the custards and remove them promptly.  Allow the crème brûlées a minute or two to cool so that the sugar hardens again before serving.

Chocolate crème brûlée, vegan & gluten free

100g dark chocolate
400mL coconut milk
1/3 cup castor sugar, plus extra to sprinkle
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon arrowroot

Preheat the oven to 120°C.  Arrange 3 ramekins or oven-proof cups in a roasting tray, and set a kettle full of water on to boil.

Gently melt together the chocolate, coconut milk, sugar and salt in a saucepan.   When it's all smooth and well mixed, whisk in the arrowroot.  Pour the custard into the cups, ideally straining it as you go, making sure to leave at least 1cm of space at the top. 

Pour the boiling water from the kettle into the roasting tray so that the water comes halfway up the sides of the ramekins.  Bake the custards for 25-30 minutes, until they're set through but still a little wobbly.  Allow the custards to cool on the bench and then chill in the fridge for at least 2 hours.

For the toffee top (which I don't especially recommend), sprinkle a teaspoon of castor sugar on each custard and swish it around gently to coat the top evenly. Bring a grill to its hottest heat and place the custards under it for a minute or two - the aim is to melt and brown the sugar without burning the custard.  Keep a close eye on the custards and remove them promptly.  Allow the crème brûlées a minute or two to cool so that the sugar hardens again before serving.

Monday, July 26, 2010

July 20, 2010: Houndstooth IV

Last Tuesday night I ventured to Houndstooth (for the first time in quite a while) with a couple of girlfriends.  Though I remembered it having the boisterous atmosphere of a bar on a Friday night, it was pleasantly cosy and sedate mid-week.

What it still does well is multi-course meal deals with at least one vego option for each course; meals that sit somewhere between fancy and homely, understated yet really rather good.  Unsurprisingly prices have increased again - it's now $20 for two courses, $25 for three courses and $30 for four courses.

I began with a Spanish blue cheese and caramelised onion tart and had a pretty good idea of what to expect.  There was a lot of pastry, a decent amount of soft sweet onion and very little cheese to speak of.  Only a pastry fiend like me would so happily let them get away with such sparse toppings.

The vegetarian main of the day was a "vegetable curry stew".  This warmly spiced mix seemed to take more inspiration from North Africa than Asia and was a real comfort on a winter night.  The generous potato chunks had slurped up the flavoured sauce gorgeously; but again, Jerusalem artichoke left me cold.

The lemon tart is clearly popular and in regular rotation.  This is as it should be - the one at Houndstooth is just perfect!

You can also read about our first, second and third visits to this restaurant.

Houndstooth has also been blogged by Ross Hill, Food Fable, Fitzroyalty and Words and Flavours.

Friday, July 23, 2010

July 17, 2010: Minh Phat Supermarket

Right across the street from the terrific Thanh Nga Nine is Minh Phat Supermarket. Though it's not specifically targeted to the vego crowd like Vincent or Global Green, this huge grocery offers an amazing array of Asian groceries for veg*ns as well as omnivores.  Having recently stocked up at Global Green, I resisted the large freezer dedicated to mock meats and most of the sauces and pastes.  The wackiest items we located were probably the mushroom-based veg alternatives to pork floss and jerky, but we left them on the shelves for now and grabbed some foods that appetised us as much as they amused.

We were dazzled by the huge selection of dried fruits.  Who knew there were so many varieties and preparations of plums?  After much deliberation we chose dried sweet mango ($3.40), sugar-coated tamarind ($1.35) and chilli guava ($3.40).

We also took home Brinjal (eggplant) pickle ($3.80), potato crispy biscuits ($3.40), cashew nut cookies ($1.50), garlic crackers ($1.80) and coloured tapioca pearls ($2.35).

That $21 is going to make for a lot of interesting snacking - we'll report back as we munch our way through these goodies.

Address: 2-8 Nicholson St, Abbotsford
Ph: 9429 4028

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 17, 2010:Thanh Nga Nine

Edit 02/01/2022: Thanh Nga Nine appears to have closed.

Time for a shameful admission: in more than four years of living in Melbourne, we've never eaten Vietnamese on Victoria Street - the closest we've come is the sadly defunct Bodhi Cafe in Abbotsford, which wasn't even Vietnamese (or the also badly missed Vina Bar on Lygon Street). When we moved here, my initial enthusiasm was killed off by the challenge of finding vego options on some overwhelmingly meaty menus, but about a year ago AOF from Confessions of a Food Nazi sent us a note (and wrote a killer review) telling us that the staff at Thanh Nga Nine understood vegetarian food and provided a bunch of delicious vego options. When Ruth also gave them the thumbs up, Thanh Nga Nine went straight onto Cindy's list of must-try places.

And then we just didn't go. I'm not sure why, but we just don't seem to spend much time in Richmond. So when we found ourselves riding up Victoria Street on a Saturday afternoon, there was no escaping a lunch pit-stop. The menu includes a sub-section of vegetarian meals, with fifteen choices and a helpful mention of the use of mock-meat (which can be swapped for vegies for those who can't face faux-pho).

Cindy ordered a whopping vegetarian pancake ($9), an intriguing concoction made predominantly of rice flour and coconut milk, dotted with faux-meat chunks and stuffed with sprouts. Cindy didn't eat it properly - turns out you're supposed to scoop up pancake bits with the lettuce leaves and mint. Instead she politely used her cutlery, still finding it a crispy treat, with the faux-pork providing the dominant flavour. Cindy also got lured in by the drink menu, ordering an icy lychee smoothie ($4.50), which was tangy, sweet and delicious, if not entirely weather appropriate.

Instead of any icy drink, I was in need of warming up, so I ordered the vegetarian pho ($9) - a dish usually so laden with meat that I rarely get to try it outside of Cindy's home-cooked efforts. This rich noodle soup came out accompanied by a plate full of sprouts, a wedge of lime and a spicy little chilli sauce. The soup was laden with noodles and about five different kinds of mock-meat, but the star of the show was the liquid itself - with the lime and chilli stirred through, the rich warming bite of the soup was a wonder. I got a bit carried away with all the chilli bits which seemed to sink to the bottom, so by the end everything got a little spicy for me, but for the most part this was an absolute sensation. And perfect on the kind of grey, wintry day that we were there.

We were well looked after by the staff, the prices are ridiculously reasonable and we walked out heartily full and completely satisfied - now that we've discovered Thanh Nga Nine we'll undoubtedly be visiting Victoria Street a little more regularly.

While writing this up, I discovered that Thanh Nga Nine is omni-blogger Melbourne Gastronome's current Victoria Street fave and that Johanna from GGG had a great lunch there. There's another good review at My Melbourne Food Blog, and a mixed write-up at My Food Odyssey.

Address: 160 Victoria Street, Richmond
Ph: 9427 7068
Price: Vegie mains - $9-$15

Sunday, July 18, 2010

July 14, 2010: Sticky-rubber date pudding

Puddings aren't the most photogenic of foods, and this one was worse than most, so I thought I'd flatter it with some soft focus and a pretty dish.

It's a sticky date pudding, a dish I've eaten out plenty of times yet never before made at home. And I probably didn't use the most standard of recipes. It's a vegan version I came across recently at Eat More Vegies, and I de-glutenised it by using the gluten-free self-raising flour I was recently sent by a PR company. The recipe reminds me very much of the self-saucing sultana duff that I made a year ago - there's very little fat involved and the cake batter is quite thick. A hot and very watery butterscotch sauce gets gently poured over the batter, some of it soaking into and inflating the pudding as it bakes.

The good news is that it tasted terrific; the minor disappointment was the texture. It seems that gluten-free flour and a long cooking time and/or lack of fat make for a rather rubbery pudding. The flavour was enough incentive for us to scrape the bowl clean in a matter of days, but I think I'll reserve the SR flour for other purposes and keep this recipe for gluten-friendly occasions.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

July 4, 2010: Bake-a-thon

The best antidote I've found for chasing away this year's winter blues is a baking day with friends. On a Sunday with typically dour July weather, K, Toby and Katy joined me in the where's the beef kitchen with the purpose of trying out some gluten-free flour I'd been sent by a PR company.

There's a lot of love amongst us ladies for peanut butter-chocolate combos, and so first item of business was Isa's peanut butter chocolate pillows. Though the flavours were a winner right from the start, Katy and K had to tinker with the textures. The peanut butter filling was immensely gooey but some extra icing sugar got it into a rollable state. Meanwhile the chocolate dough was far too dry and crumbly to mold around it! The first solution was to make some sandwich-style cookies. (These were delicious but a little dry and messy.)

K experimented with xantham gum to no avail, then eventually found success when she accidentally added more soy milk than she intended to.

The pillows were just wonderful. Their taste and texture is consistent with the other Isa recipes I've tried, but I would never have detected the gluten-free flour in a blind test.

Over by the stove, Toby and I set about making the broccoli quiche from Vegan Brunch. Toby did a gorgeous job of chopping, sautéing and spicing while I struggled over the shortcrust pastry. Things got off to a terrible, terrible start - while I followed the recipe quite faithfully, it turns out there's a typo in the recipe book such that I added 5 times more fat than is really needed. This batch had to be rejected outright.

My second attempt was better, though it didn't resemble any butter-and-gluten-full shortcrust I've made before. It was a stark white, and I wasn't a bit surprised when it proved difficult to roll and transfer smoothly to my pie dish. With the help of two more pairs of hands we dragged it in and avoided too many tears. Thinking back to my limited-gluten wholemeal crust, I resolutely patched up the crust and hoped for the best. It stuck together well enough. After the blind-baking stage, I noticed that the crust had shrunk and pulled away from the dish, while the patchy sections were flaking and separating a little too.

While I was relieved to see the crust hold together and resist leakage, it was in no other way a success. The exposed edges were horrendously tough and it was utterly flavourless all the way through. Consolation came from the gorgeous filling, which I wouldn't hesitate to make again.

More savoury joy was had from Toby's spontaneous whipping up of some Chinese-style lemon tofu (à la lemon chicken). It seems to be his latest obsession and he's written more about it here. It was very special indeed.

Finally, K and I put our heads together and fashioned these lemon and cherry-spiked cupcakes. We took inspiration from this lemon-almond cake recipe, replacing the ground almonds with ground cashews and dividing the batter into 10 cupcake cases.

The icing was even more experimental. I reduced the syrup from a jar of morello cherries to a quarter of its original volume and used it to flavour a buttercream made from Nuttlex, sifted icing sugar, a little soy milk and vanilla. Tasting as we went, we were surprised at the improvement that those smidges of Bonsoy and vanilla made to the final taste and texture. The cakes had the faintest strange aftertaste but were otherwise brilliant.

I'd guess that this gluten-free flour will work best in strongly flavoured, robust cakes and cookies and I'd be more hesitant about substituting it directly into subtly flavoured cakes or finicky sponges. While my shortcrust was an unmitigated disaster, I haven't given up entirely - Ellie has recently reported gluten-free shortcrust success and I'm toying with another experiment.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

July 3, 2010: Rumi II

Rumi was a real It restaurant in its first 12 months of operation and though it's no longer surrounded by quite the same hype, it's still a bustling business (and in a larger space). We considered ourselves lucky to get a Saturday night reservation just a few days in advance while an interstate friend of ours was in town. Also trying their luck were many tarriers on the night, crowding the entrance and hoping for a spot at the reservation-free communal table.

The biggest disappointment of the night came early - no cocktails. I reminded myself that I'd admired them in a long-distant blog post at tummy rumbles and that I shouldn't expect the menu to be the same. Now, browsing the blogosphere, I notice that the pomegranate vodka cocktails have probably been served as recently as March this year and I'm disappointed all over again. Phooey. I love pomegranate.

I couldn't stay mad long with a waiter as friendly as ours, and the food too is the kind to bring a grin to my face. The sigara boregi ($12) are still delicious, albeit a little less golden and crispy than on our first meeting.

The fried potatoes ($9.50) were lovely in every way - creamy-tender but not disintegrating, with lemon and spices that were lively yet not at all harsh.

We were a little less enthusiastic about the sweet and sour Jerusalem artichokes ($13.50), probably because they were served cool.

The fried cauliflower ($11) is brilliant; it's little wonder it's survived some menu changes. I love that something so sweet and fried is still apparently dinner, not dessert.

To break up the fried-ness of it all we order the rice pilaf ($9) but ultimately didn't finish it. It was a little bland and we'd not ordered anything saucy enough to soak through it.

Michael remedied the moisture situation with a follow-up order of labne ($7).

Our dining companion ordered Ma'mool ($7) for dessert. These date-filled shortbreads went down remarkably easily and enjoyably, given how full we felt at this stage.

Rumi was the perfect choice for this night together - informal but a little bit special, with the shared plates adding to the fun and allowing flexibility for our mixed vegetarian/omnivore eating. There are plenty other bloggers amongst Rumi's fans too - check out posts at Dave Plus Food, Eat Almost Anything, Addict, List Addict, doublecooked, wanting kneading, Eating With Jack and Crap Kraft Dinner.

Friday, July 09, 2010

July 3, 2010: The Bell Jar

Sometimes I despair of being a Melbourne food-blogger. We finally get around to visiting Proud Mary and feeling like we're catching up to the zeitgeist a bit and then a pile of trendy new places open up (I'm fully aware that the linked places have all been open for ages, we're just slow). So it was a relief for us to get ourselves organised fairly quickly to visit the recently opened and widely raved about Bell Jar in Clifton Hill.

It's a really cute space - a bustling front-room, a laid-back communal table tucked around the back and a courtyard that would be perfect in summer (minus the two guys who were smoking like chimneys on our visit). The communal table, where we were seated was decorated with a very autumnal centrepiece (see above), which made the excellently made coffees (with Bonsoy!) that much more enjoyable.

For eats, Cindy strangely opted for savoury: mushrooms and rocket with Meredith feta and walnut pesto on sourdough ($12). Buried underneath all those greens was a thick slice of delicious toast, slathered with a wonderful pesto - just the thing to complement the creamy feta and hearty mushrooms. This was a cracking breakfast.

I couldn't go past the vego potted poached eggs of the day (w/ beans), served with relish and toast ($13). The beany mush is underneath the eggs in the picture above and was hearty and warming, with a sweet oniony relish and perfectly poached eggs to smear all over the toast. My only disappointment was the single slice of toast - I could have done with a second, although I probably would have ended up overfull.

It's worth mentioning the service - the staff were all super friendly and attentive and apologetic for even the tiniest issue (I had to wait a full 90 seconds longer for my coffee than our brekkie companion!). The place was pretty full while we were there, so it seems as though word is spreading - The Bell Jar isn't really going to get many walk-ins at the industrial Clifton Hill end of Smith Street, but with great affordable food, a brilliant atmosphere and super service, they should be able to survive pretty comfortably.

Despite our impressive timeliness, Brian, Joyce, Hookturns and Vetti all got in and reviewed The Bell Jar before us.

Address: 656 Smith Street, Clifton Hill
Ph: 0410 336 019
Price: $5-$14

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

June 26, 2010: Neo-Aussie biscuits

It's hard to believe that our American colleague's 11 months at my workplace have come to an end. But before he and his family departed, we were determined to give them a send-off to match the many memorable adventures they've had while here. To this end our boss hosted an Aussie barbecue at his home with cricket and quizzes, damper and honey joys. For my part, I tracked down a copy of the Australian board game Squatter to send home with them and baked these biscuits with native spices.

These were very much an experiment, inspired by the flavours of wattleseed and lemon myrtle.  I wanted a soft, not-too-rich, not-too-sweet biscuit with the warm coffee-ish flavour of wattleseed, topped with a thin, crunchy lemon myrtle glaze.  Basing the biscuit recipe on Nigella's coffee walnut splodges and making the icing up as I went along, these didn't match my vision but were very pleasant nonetheless. The biscuits were very, very close to what I was after but could have done with more wattleseed.  The icing, however, was too thin and ended up soaking into the biscuits.  It never quite attained intensity of tartness that I sought to counteract the sugar.  I need to work more on infusing the liquid with that lemon myrtle.

Have any of y'all tinkered with Australia's native foods in your own kitchen?  I'd love to know what you've tried, and how it worked out.

Neo-Aussie biscuits

biscuit dough
250g plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
200g unsalted butter, softened
75g castor sugar
60g brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground wattleseed (I'll try 2 tablespoons next time)
2 large eggs, beaten
150g walnuts, roughly chopped

2 tablespoons boiling water
2 teaspoons ground lemon myrtle
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup icing sugar

Preheat the oven to 180°C.

In a bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt.  In a larger bowl, cream together the butter and sugars. Gradually mix in the wattleseed and then the eggs. Stir in the flour mixture and the walnuts by hand until just combined.

Line a baking tray (or two, if you have them) with paper and drop generous teaspoons of the dough onto them.  Bake for about 12 minutes, until they've just developed a firm crust. Let them cool on the tray for 5 minutes before transferring them to a rack.

When the biscuits have cooled, prepare the icing.  Pour the boiling water over the lemon myrtle in a cup and allow it to steep for a few minutes. Strain the water into a small saucepan. Add the butter and melt them together. Remove the mixture from the heat and sift over the icing sugar. Whisk the icing until smooth and dip the top of each biscuit into the icing, in turn, before returning them to the rack.  Allow the icing to set before serving.