Crunchies

Dilemmas. We all have them, none of us really enjoy them, so who needs them? Not me…I have a dilemma on my hands and am trying to think wisely and not be a Worry Wort before I have to make a decision.  But I’m a planner. And planners plan. I like to have A Plan. I like to know what I’m going to do. Surprises and spontaneity are great, but I like to plan when I’ll be spontaneous :).

Traditional Oaty Crunchies

How do you deal with dilemmas? I think about them, continuously. Looking at the options from every angle possible. Sometimes I even write lists of Pros and Cons. I was taught that once you had committed to something, you always saw it through. People were counting on you and your commitment and word should mean something. But what if something better comes along? Do you look at it from a personal perspective as to what would be most gratifying and enjoyable? Do you look at what would be better for your family circumstances? I worry that if I make the wrong decision I’ll end up regretting it and longing for the other option.

Choices, Choices, Choices. So lucky to have choices but as my good friend always tells me (‘cos her husband always tells her this and we are sooo similar), don’t worry about something that hasn’t happened yet. My wonderful other half is telling me that we should be thankful that we have choices and not waste energy on trying to work it all out when what will be will be. Nature, The Universe, God – however you want to look at it, has a way of taking care of things. Que Sera Sera and all that.

So as I contemplate my dilemma while trying very hard not to, I shall sit with a fresh cup of tea and enjoy some newly baked crunchies. Ah, the crunchies. What are they you ask? Delicious little oat, golden syrup, coconut squares – similar to a muesli or granola bar, but home made so have no nasty chemicals or preservatives. They are normally a golden brown colour but I opted for a darker, richer soft brown sugar with this batch.  Treat yourself.

ingredients:
230 g butter
1 Tbsp golden syrup
2 cups oats
1 cup flour
1 cup coconut
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda

  1. Preheat the oven to 180 º C.
  2. Mix the flour, oats and coconut in a bowl.
  3. Melt the butter in a small pot on the stove.
  4. Add the syrup and sugar and heat.
  5. When the butter is bubbling, add the bicarb. Stir quickly as the mixture will rapidly increase in volume and remove from the heat.
  6. Pour the butter mixture into the dry ingredients and stir together by hand.
  7. Using the back of a metal spoon, gently press the crunchie mixture into a greased or lined baking tray (approx 30 cm x 20 cm or similar, depending on how thick you like your crunchies.
  8. Bake for 15 minutes at 180 º C then turn the oven down to 160 º C and bake for a further 10 minutes until golden brown.
  9. Allow to cool in the pan before slicing.

Enjoy!

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Balsamic Strawberry and Smoked Chicken Salad

Today was one of those “All-Seasons-in-One-Day” type of days. It started out as grey and misty, with light tiny rain drops that you can’t quite decide if it’s rain or mist, but you are absolutely grateful for and not at all annoyed about getting slightly wet as the heat and humidity is enough to frizz any hair style. As the mist cleared later in the day and Auckland put on a spectacularly beautiful sunfest, I got a bit too much sun and now look like I’m wearing a t-shirt even when in the shower! But no matter, it will fade soon but the overwhelming feeling I will keep with me was one of happiness and nostalgia.

Balsamic Strawberry and Smoked Chicken Salad

A very good friend back in South Africa got married yesterday. I’ve known him since I was a little girl and he always seemed to be part of our family. Another “Uncle”. But then he introduced me to my husband way back when and he suddenly became more of a friend than an Uncle. All of a sudden we were all grown-ups and we had the party of parties at his home back in 1995 during the Rugby World Cup when South Africa triumphed over the mighty All Blacks in front of a home crowd with Madiba wearing the Springbok jersey. The cars in the streets, with both young and old flying flags out the windows, hooting and tooting, everyone celebrating! Many may remember the day while others will have seen it in the movie Invictus, and others reading this may not have a clue what I’m talking about…but no matter.

Our dear friend is one of life’s hard workers and Angels that looks after everyone else. We honestly thought that he was going to spend the rest of his days on his own and we have often thought what a waste of a wonderful human spirit that would be. Until he found his ‘special one’ and their friendship blossomed into that special something that I wish more people could be blessed to share in when it seems you’ve found your other half. Sadly, my nostalgia was caused by the fact that we couldn’t be with him on this very special day but were celebrating in spirit from a half a world away. In honour of love, summer and all things delicious, I decided to make one of my favourite salads as it was way too hot to cook and I always think strawberries look like little red hearts and as it is February, the month of Love, it seemed fitting.

As strawberry season is coming to an end now, I’d suggest making this salad earlier on in the season when the strawberries are large, ripe and juicy as these ones were a bit small, but delicious none the less. Served with a fresh loaf of crusty bread, this light dinner or lunch always delights all who get to partake. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked for the recipe, so now you get to enjoy it too!

ingredients:

250 g punnet strawberries, hulled and quartered
¼ cup white or brown balsamic vinegar (red wine vinegar will also work)
1 smoked chicken breast, skin removed (I use 2 as a little extra chicken can’t be wrong :))
½ cucumber, peeled and sliced
2 spring onions, chopped
2 cups mixed lettuce leaves
1 cup fresh basil leaves
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp runny honey

  1. Toss strawberries in vinegar and stand for 10 mins; drain and reserve vinegar.
  2. Combine all salad ingredients and refrigerate (except the dressing).
  3. Mix the reserved vinegar with the oil and honey and pour over the salad just before serving.

Enjoy!
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Macarons

Until a few years ago I bet that not many off us had come across Macarons, which took the world by storm back in 2012. They were everywhere…green ones, pink ones, chocolate ones, vanilla ones…I set about trying to discover what they were and why they were so popular. I decided the best way to do this was to make them myself as I wasn’t prepared to pay upwards of $3.00 per macaron and was battling to understand what all the fuss was about. Now they’ve even popped up on our local service station’s coffee treat menu! MacDonald’s even sell them in their cafe! So a while ago I set about trying to find the secret to this little treasure.

Macarons
My first discovery was that some people refer to them as Macaroons (pronounced mah-kah-roons) while others refer to them as Macarons (pronounced mah-kah-rohns).Was this just a spelling and pronunciation error or was there actually more to this little tale where my knowledge quite obviously didn’t extend far enough? I had to find out.

It seems that both are cookies, but look and taste very different. However, they are distant cousins and begin with the same ingredients and then once you add a few different things along the way, Ta Da! You end up with two very different cookies.

History tells us, whether factually or according to popular myth, the macaron, despite being most popular with the French, was created circa 1533 in Italy by the chef of Catherine de Medici, who brought her sweet tooth indulgence to France when she married the French king. Since macarons bare a striking resemblance to the Italian cookie amaretti, and share the same origin as the Italian word “macaroni”, this version of history sounds good to me!

A few tips from me? Don’t trust the first recipe you come across unless it is the one below…I’ve tried a few and I found this one the simplest and easiest to follow. The almond flour really does need to be sieved a few times to remove any lumps and bumps so if you have a food processor, use it! Pushing it through a sieve can become very tiring and takes a while so process, process and process again before sieving.

My final verdict: They are delicious and if you manage to get them right, the satisfaction of having the “frilly feet” and smooth top far outweigh the pleasure of eating it. I find them very rich and can’t quite be bothered to make them more than I would absolutely have to. But…having conquered this dainty morsel, I move on to other challenges, wishing you the best of luck.

ingredients:

2/3 cup almond meal or ground almonds
1½ cups icing sugar
3 large egg whites, room temperature
5 Tbsp granulated sugar (I use castor sugar)
1 tsp vanilla extract

  1. Preheat the oven to 140ºC, and position 2 racks in the lower section of the oven. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. If you have time, draw 2-3cm circles on the back of each sheet, spacing the circles at least 2cm apart.
  2. If your almond meal is very coarse, grind it with the icing sugar in a food processor until fine. Sift the almond meal-powdered sugar mixture twice through a mesh sieve. If making a chocolate version, add cocoa to the dry ingredients prior to sieving.
  3. Place egg whites in a glass bowl and begin to beat on medium-high. When the eggs are frothy, gradually add castor sugar 1 tablespoon at a time until fully incorporated. Continue to beat the egg white mixture until glossy and stiff peaks form when you lift the beaters. Gently stir in the vanilla extract (and any food colouring/gel if making different colours). Be careful to not overbeat the meringue.
  4. Add half of the sifted almond mixture, and gently fold it into the meringue using a flexible silicone spatula. Lift from the bottom, up around the sides, and toward the middle, being careful to not overagitate the meringue and lose too much air. Once the almond mixture is predominantly incorporated, add the second half and repeat the folding motion – sounds very technical, but folding is different to stirring so try to follow this to leave as much air in as possible.
  5. When the almond mixture is just incorporated, you will need to transform the batter into the appropriate texture…not using a magic wand…I know this step sounds a bit strange, but bare with me. Using the flat of the spatula, “punch” down into the center of the batter, then scrape more batter from the sides to the center, and punch again. You will need to repeat this 10-15 times (or more, depending on your arm strength and the beginning texture of your batter) until the batter slowly and continuously drips back into the bowl when you scoop it up with the spatula. Think of the consistency of molten lava. For the best results, punch the batter a few times, check the consistency, then punch a few more times, etc. Do not make the batter too runny or the macarons won’t rise as they should, and you could end up with oil stains on the surface.
  6. When you’re happy that you’ve achieved the right texture, pour the batter into a pastry bag fitted with a half inch/1 cm tip. Now if you followed the directions properly and drew the circles on the back of the parchment paper, well done! If not, turn the paper over before piping as you don’t want to end up with pencil marks on your gorgeous macarons.
  7. Pipe a disc shape over the circle – I tend to place the tip in the centre of the circle, slightly lifted off the paper and squeeze gently with constant pressure. That way the disc forms beautifully. Give a small flick when you release the pressure to break the stream of batter mixture. You may have a little point on top of the disc, either tap it gently with your finger to flatten it or leave it and it should disappear over the course of the next few steps.
  8. Once all piping is finished, hold the baking sheet in both hands and rap it firmly on the counter two or three times. Now people…please! Not WRAP, rap – meaning bang. Some comments following the original recipe leave a person speechless…”what do I wrap it with?” No wrapping, just rapping (and not the edgy stoccato lyric kind either…bang people, BANG!). OK, back to the case in point – this smooths out the tops and helps form the “pied” or frilly foot on the bottoms of the macarons. Allow the piped macarons to dry, uncovered, for at least 15 minutes. The macarons should form a very thin, smooth crust where, if you tap it lightly with your finger, the batter will not stick to your finger. If after 15 minutes the batter is still sticky, let it dry longer. It may take up to an hour on humid days, but hopefully not as by now, you’ll have worked up an appetite and be wanting to taste these little morsels of sweet delight.
  9. Place both baking sheets in the oven and bake for 15 – 18 minutes. After the first 2 minutes, open the oven to allow any excess humidity to escape – then close it again. Halfway through, swap oven racks and rotate the sheets for even baking. The macarons are done when they are baked all the way through and the shells are just hard. Take care to not underbake (insides will still be mushy) or overbake (tops will begin to brown). Remove them from the oven and cool on the baking sheets placed on a wire rack.
  10. When fully cooled, assemble the macarons with your choice of filling. The assembled macarons can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Enjoy!

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Pea, Mint and Avocado Salad

Over the past few weeks Summer seems to have become confused. Our glorious days look like they’re waning and have been interspersed with a few grey, wet days. Although they’ve still been warm with relative humidity, I’m already missing the days of a few weeks ago. Today, however, has turned into another beautiful day. The second load of washing is on the line, my hubby’s been mowing the lawn, my little one has been playing in his play house outside and I’ve been thinking of food…

I’ve been trying to decide which dish I want to share with you next as we’ve had a few large parties and gatherings in recent weeks so recipes aplenty! If the weather had stayed a tad cooler and far more grey, I was going to share a delicious Lamb Potjie recipe (a traditional Afrikaans South African recipe and way of cooking that stems from the descendants of the early Dutch settlers making their way across the African plains in their ox wagons, cooking over an open fire with large cast iron pots on 3 legs. The word “potjie” means a small pot, but some of them actually aren’t that small.

Anyway, I digress…this heat has meant I’m leaning more towards the fresh salad I prepared for guests at my birthday party recently which accompanied the potjie, home baked bread, savoury muffins and puddings, some of which I’ve already shared with you.

My sister-in-law even liked the photo on Facebook so much she asked for the recipe immediately! It is a winner. Really easy to make combining simple flavours and all ingredients are green, making this a true Green Salad. It will brighten up any table and the dressing is whipped up in seconds and can be used for any number of different salads. I came across this recipe in Annabelle Langbein’s latest recipe book: A Free-Range Life – everything you need for a great Summer!, which I was very kindly given by one of my good friends for said birthday a few weeks earlier.

Pea and Avocado Salad

ingredients:

Salad:
6 handfuls of spinach or cos lettuce leaves
2 large, just-ripe avocados, cut into chunks
2 cups blanched frozen peas or fresh peas if you’re lucky to be able to get your hands on them
12 – 15 mint leaves, finely shredded or torn
salt and pepper to taste
honey mustard dressing

  1. Place spinach or cos leaves on a big serving platter or bowl and top with the avocado chunks, followed by the peas and mint.
  2. Just before serving, drizzle with the dressing and season to taste.
  3. Toss lightly to serve.

Honey Mustard Dressing:
I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t bother measuring the ingredients for the dressing. I’m happier when it’s a dash of this, a grind of that, a dollop of whatever…I left out the garlic and salt and pepper and replaced the white wine vinegar with red wine vinegar and it was still heavenly.

1½ tsp light honey
1½ tsp dijon mustard
¼ cup white wine vinegar
½ cup neutral oil (I used Rice Bran)
½ clove garlic, crushed
salt and ground black pepper
juice of 1 lemon

  1. Place all ingredients in a small jar or jug and either shake (the jar) or whisk (if in a jug) to combine.
  2. Keeps in the fridge for up to a week and is delicious used on all kinds of salads.

Enjoy!

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Lemon and Gin Cake with White Chocolate Buttercream and Ganache

Now I understand that not everyone likes or drinks Gin, but please don’t make the mistake of thinking that you could actually drink this cake or end up with a mouth full of strong alcohol flavour. This is one of the best cake batters I have come across and I’ve tried a few! If you’re not partial to the gin and lemon syrup, leave it out by all means and enjoy this as a plain vanilla cake. I have, but for my 40th party recently, I decided to go the whole way and the end result was moist, dense and melt-in-your-mouth delicious!

I used 2 x 22cm diameter round cake tins and the cake was still fairly tall, however the recipe calls for 2 x 20cm diameter round cake tins. Previously I’d used the 2ocm diameter tins and it had beautiful height so you decide which is your favourite size. The batter is made using the traditional method of creaming the butter and sugar together, but adding lemon zest at this point makes it a little more special. If you opt for the vanilla option, leave out the lemon zest*. I allowed the ganache to cool a bit too much so it didn’t go on 100% smooth as it was setting as I was spreading it, but if the ganache is still too warm, it may melt the buttercream underneath and things can only get worse from there so be prepared to work quickly. Now I hear some of you asking the question: why use buttercream and ganache? I do it this way as unless you have cut the two cake rounds to meet and fit exactly, there are sometimes a few holes, gaps or dents that the buttercream fills up. You can then smooth it out beautifully, creating a perfectly smooth canvas for the ganache, but as you can see, the top of my cake was perfect, but the sides didn’t go on as easily. I was still pleased with the end result though and I don’t think any of the guests minded too much…there was nothing left by midnight when the last guest went home.

Gin and Lemon cake with White Chocolate Ganache

ingredients:

Cake:
375 g butter, softened
1 2/3 cups sugar
3 Tbsp finely grated lemon zest*
3 eggs, room temperature
3 cups flour
2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
275 ml milk, warmed for 10 seconds

  1. Preheat the oven to 170°C. Grease the bases and sides of two 20 cm or 22 cm baking tins and coat in flour or line the bottoms with two baking paper cut outs. Both methods of greasing and line work for me, just depends on personal preference really.
  2. Place softened (but not melted!) butter, sugar and lemon zest* in a bowl and beat for 4 – 5 minutes until the mixture is pale and thick. Add eggs, one by one, beating well between each addition.
  3. Sift the dry ingredients in a separate bowl and add alternately with the milk to the creamed mixture.
  4. Pour the mixture, once all combined, into the prepared pans, smoothing the tops. Bake the cakes for 45 – 55 minutes until a skewer/tester comes out clean.
  5. Allow to cool on a wire rack or follow instructions if adding Lemon and Gin syrup.
  6. Trim tops of cakes if necessary (you don’t want any peaks when trying to layer them up) so the top is flat. Ice the centre, top and sides with the butter cream.
  7. You can just leave it like that or prepare and add the White Chocolate Ganache as well.

Lemon and Gin Syrup:
½ cup sugar
¼ cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup gin

  1. Place sugar and lemon juice into a small pan. Bring slowly to the boil and continue to boil for 1 minute.
  2. Remove the pan from the heat and add the gin.
  3. As soon as the cakes are removed from the oven, poke lots of holes in the tops with a skewer. Spoon ALL of the syrup over the tops slowly and leave the cakes in the pans to absorb the syrup.
  4. If you taste it immediately, it is likely you’ll breathe alcohol fumes all over everyone, but once it has settled and stood for a while and the icing and ganache is in place, you won’t be able to identify the gin.

White Chocolate Buttercream:
125 g butter, softened
3 cups icing sugar, sifted
¼ cup milk
200 g white chocolate, melted and cooled slightly

  1. Cream the butter until it is very pale, about 5 minutes.
  2. On a low speed, add the sifted icing sugar alternately with the milk.
  3. Continue to beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.
  4. Finally, beat in the melted chocolate.
  5. Use buttercream as soon as possible as it will become firm but note that the cake MUST be cool before adding the icing or it will melt so time the making of this buttercream carefully.
  6. Once the cake is iced and beautifully smooth, creating a perfect canvas for the ganache, you can cool/store it in the fridge to set the icing further if you like.

White Chocolate Ganache:
375 g white chocolate chips/melts
150 ml cream

  1. Roughly chop the chocolate and place it in a heat proof bowl.
  2. Heat the cream in a small pan until bubbles start to appear around the edges.
  3. Pour the cream over the chocolate and stir gently with a whisk until thoroughly combined.
  4. Sieve if preferred to remove any lumps and set aside until thick but still of a pouring consistency – you don’t want to smear it on the cake.
  5. Pour it over the cake and spread quickly down the sides.

Tip: to prevent a big chocolatey gooey mess, you can do this on a wire rack over a tray so the chocolate flows into the tray and can be used again, but you may have a problem trying to move the cake once the ganache has set as you don’t want to get fingermarks on it. Alternatively, tear 4 strips of baking paper and place them on the serving plate, slightly overlapping with the cake in the centre. Pour the ganache over the top and work quickly to spread it. Once set, cut a clean edge/line around the bottom and gently pull the baking paper away from the cake, leaving a beautiful clean serving plate behind.

Enjoy!