Monday, October 26, 2009

A neanderthal dessert

There’s a story that my grandmother tells that has been told so many times that I can’t remember whether it was about me or my sister any more. My Savta (Hebrew for grandmother, and the only name I’ve ever known my paternal grandmother by) is a marvellous baker – she has ways with yeast that would make some of the fancy artisanal bakers popping up these days weak at the knees! So, she used to come to our primary school every now and then and do baking classes with the kids. We all loved it, but when Savta introduced herself to the class: “Hi everyone, I’m Savta”, the little girl in the story (me or my sister) became quite distressed claiming, “you’re not everyone else’s Savta, you’re only mine!”

So, we’ve obviously become more generous with our Savta-sharing over the past 20 years because last week we shared a special and all too rare baking afternoon with a couple of friends who were dying to learn her magical ways with yeast.

The cake of the day was Caveman Cake – which I think is actually supposed to be called something like Dumpling Cake – a Hungarian specialty that we have thus named because you never cut the cake, but rather rip off chunks with your hands and gobble as quickly as possible.

Thea brought along her wonderful fancy camera and was nice enough to take photos of the whole process for me – so I’ll try to illustrate the recipe as best I can with her gorgeous shots.

Caveman Cake

The thing with this cake is that it’s about perfecting the dough, which isn’t hard work but might mean a couple of failures and a couple of mediocre cakes before you get things right. The wonderful news is that when you’ve got this dough right, you can also use it to make delicious homemade donuts!


6g dry active yeast
1 tsp sugar
2tbs warm water
400g flour
2 egg yolks
50g butter (although Savta always uses margarine to make the cake suitable for eating after a meaty Friday night dinner, in accordance with Kashrut laws around mixing meat and milk)
250ml tepid water (for a richer cake you could substitute this with milk)
1 tsp salt
2 tbs caster sugar
¼ cup canola oil plus a bit more for greasing


120g walnuts
4-5 tbs apricot jam
100g sugar
Zest of 1 lemon

Mix the yeast, tsp of sugar and warm water in a large bowl and leave aside to proof.

Add all other dough ingredients to the bowl.

At this stage if you’re lucky enough to have a bench-top mixer, stick it in there with the dough hook attachment and let it go on medium for about 3 minutes.

After 3 minutes, slowly add the oil in a thin stream and let it be incorporated into the dough.

If you’re doing this by hand, it will be quite a wet, sticky and soft dough, so rub a bit of oil onto your hands as you work. You’ll probably have to knead for about 10 minutes and then slowly incorporate the oil.

Now it’s time to leave the dough alone in a warm place, let the yeast do its work and relax with “something prepared earlier” and a cup of tea.

Although there is a little bit of work to be done now – grind up the walnuts in the food processor and mix it with the sugar and lemon zest. Also, preheat the oven to 200c.

Once the dough has doubled, or even almost tripled (usually about 1 - 1.5 hours), tip it out of the bowl onto a well floured surface.

Handle the dough as little as possible because you want to keep all that precious air in there but flatten it out a bit to about an inch thick.

Using a cookie cutter or glass cut circles of dough out – make sure you use all the dough, fashioning odd shaped bits out of the cut-offs - because Savta would be very disappointed if you threw anything out!

Take a large, deep cake tin (any shape will do, Savta always uses a big square one) and sprinkle a bit of oil on the bottom.

Place a layer of the dough rounds on the bottom of the pan – they don’t need to overlap, and don’t even really need to touch because it’ll grow again before it goes in the oven.

Pop about a teaspoon sized blob of apricot jam on each round and sprinkle over half of the walnut mixture.

Repeat until all dough rounds have been used up – don’t put jam or walnut on the top layer, just brush it with some egg white or milk.

Leave the cake like this for about 20 minutes to rise a bit more and pop it into the hot oven for about 30mins or until it’s golden brown and springy to touch.

Pull it out of the oven, turn out onto a cooling rack.

Enjoy, tearing apart with your fingers as soon as it’s not going to give you third degree burns (although, even that would be worth it!)

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Cheesy Potato Cure

Upon reading a title like “Cheesy Potato Cure” you could be forgiven for thinking that this post would contain stories of cold weather, long days in the office and the need for rich, stodgy comfort food, like Cheesy Potatoes to cure all the ills in the world... but you would be wrong. In fact, it is a post about what to eat as a cure when you've eaten too much greasy food and feel like, well a cheesy potato. I think I should go back a little bit and explain...

The term “Cheesy Potato” was coined what seems like an age ago when my lovely sister flew half way around the world to save me from dying of a broken heart, all alone, in Italy. Ok, so I was nineteen and probably a little melodramatic, but it was definitely a sad and lonely place to be.

We met up in Barcelona for what turned out to be a wonderful 10 days or so of touring, talking, drinking, healing and, of course eating. Only problem is, Spain is not such a friendly place for the vegetarian and over the course our time there we ate more bread, egg, potato, cheese and miscellaneous fried stuff than anyone could ever wish to. Not to mention all washed down with plenty of cerveza (which is really just more bread in liquid form!)

It was one day when we'd been wandering the Alhambra in Granada for untold hours and the lack of food was beginning to make us both a little hangry (hungry-angry) that we relented and ate a boccadillo (don't be fooled by the fancy name it is, you guessed it, bread filled with egg and potato) from the touristy food stall just outside the Alhambra. It was gross – stodgy, dry and greasy all at the same time. After inhaling the whole thing, Thea groaned “Urgh, I feel like a cheesy potato!” And so, a legend was born – from that point on, whenever too much unhealthy food has been consumed, we cry “Cheesy Potato”!!!

Now, there are a number of ways to cure this particular feeling. Often something as simple as a tart apple or a stick of celery will suffice to freshen up your insides and make you feel clean and sparkly again, but sometimes, a quick fix just won't do and a whole meal must be devoted to scrubbing the cheesy potato out of your system. These times call for something that make you feel virtuous and taste delicious, something that tastes green, something like the salad I made this week for dinner, and then again for lunch. Inspired by the sorrel I bought from the farmers market and the red quinoa bestowed upon me by Dave's mum, this salad was the perfect cure for my cheesy potato feeling brought on by an indulgent weekend in Tasmania and too many lunches and dinners out and about.

The beauty of this salad is that it is substantial enough to eat for dinner, stays fresh left overs, and lends itself very nicely to whatever variations of vegetables you have in your frigde – although I would have to say that if you can find a nice bunch of sorrel, use it – it's tangy and zingy yet earthy flavour is really something special.

Cheesy Potato Cure Salad – or Sorrel and Red Quinoa Salad

1 bunch fresh sorrel, washed, dried and cut into ribbons (you could also use rocket, spinach or a mixture of all three)
1 cup red quinoa (or other quinoa)
1 bunch spring onion, chopped into 1 cm pieces
½ avocado, sliced
1 small cucumber, chopped into half circles
1 tomato, diced
1 bunch asparagus, briefly blanched or steamed and chopped into 2cm pieces
100g feta cheese (optional)


1 tbs dijon mustard
3 tbs white wine vinegar
5 tbs olive oil

Rinse the quinoa well under running water for a minute or so (then take a shorter shower that night to off-set the guilt of running the tap for so long)

Pop the rinsed quinoa and 2 cups of water in a pot on the stove. Bring to the boil, stirring occasionally then reduce to a simmer, pop on a tight fitting lid and let it cook until almost transluscent and tender and all the water is absorbed. My packet of quinoa said 10-15 minutes but it took more like 20mins.

In the meantime, prepare all the veggies and whisk together all ingredients for the dressing in a small bowl.

Dump everything (except feta) into a big bowl, and pour all the dressing on top – toss well – at this stage, if you're not going to use the feta, add some salt to the salad too.

Crumble some feta on top and enjoy straight from the serving bowl.

Serves 2 people for a light dinner and the perfect cure to cheesey potato guilt.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Many kinds of happiness

There are many things in life that can make a girl happy; clean white sheets, dark chocolate, warm weather, dinner parties, just catching the last train, overalls, badedas bath gel and of course dumplings.

The wonderful thing about dumplings is that they come in so many different types and appear in so many different cuisines that you can be dumpling happy almost anywhere at any time of day!

There are dumplings that you eat down laneways in the city, drowned in vinegar and shared with friends, beer and a couple of rats. There are dumplings that you eat at your grandmother’s house which are doughy and crumbed and filled with sour plum jam so you’re never entirely sure whether they’re sweet or savoury.

And then there are dumplings that are more your style, full of ricotta, silverbeet and swimming in rich tomato sauce. Dumplings called malfatti that you make yourself and serve at home, inflicting serious dumpling happiness on your family and friends. For me they are the best dumplings of all!

Last night I cooked dinner at my parent’s place for my family and thought that these delicious (mostly) light little balls of ricotta and silverbeet would be the perfect food to serve up to a big hungry crowd. As it turns out, making these en masse is a fairly arduous task that included almost a kilo of ricotta, de-stemming steaming and chopping about 2 kilos of silverbeet and lots and lots of ball rolling. While some of the gorgeous little dumplings came out a bit soft and others a bit hard, they were, on the whole very yummy – particularly when paired with Marcella Hazan’s Crazy Tomato Sauce and some freshly grated parmesan. Here, I've been realistic and given a recipe that will generously serve 2 rather than 6 people.

Like all things dumpling, these should probably be enjoyed in moderation, but will more likely be scoffed and result in sighing and belly grabbing. It’s worth it, but don’t say I didn’t warn you!

Ricotta and Silverbeet Malfatti*

1 small(ish) bunch silverbeet (or rainbow chard or spinach etc)
350g fresh ricotta (not from the tub, it’s too wet)
2 eggs
1 ¼ cup plain flour
¼ cup grated parmesan
Salt, pepper and nutmeg to taste

Trim the silverbeet to remove the stems and any thick white veins so that you’re left just with the leafy bits.

Steam or briefly sauté in a bit of water for about 5 minutes until properly wilted.

Transfer to a bowl to let it cool until you can handle it then squeeze out as much moisture as possible. Finely chop the silverbeet and squeeze again (and again and again) to make it as dry and finely chopped as possible.

In a clean bowl mix together all the ingredients (but only a small amount of flour, about ½ cup)

Once well combined it should be wet but not too sticky, keep working in flour bit by bit until you have a dough that you can work into little balls without making a massive mess. At the same time, the more four you add, the chewier the dumplings will be, so this may take a couple of attempts to perfect.

Lay out a sheet of waxed baking paper, sprinkle with flour (I used semolina because I ran out of normal) and pop on a large pot of salted water to boil.

Take approximately ½- 1 tsp size pieces of the dough and roll into little balls, place on the baking paper - don't be tempted to make them bigger because they will swell a bit and these are the sort of thing that you just want to pop into your mouth, not cut in half first.

Once they’re all done, sprinkle a bit of extra flour on top of them all.

In two batches, gently plop the dumplings into lightly simmering water. When they bob up to the top, leave them for a minute and then pull them out with a slotted spoon. Repeat with the remaining dumplings.

Serve with rich tomato sauce, or some brown butter and sage and be dumpling happy.

* Malfatti means badly made in Italian - but I think mine looked lovely ;) these are also called Gnudi because they're like ravioli filling without the "jacket" of pasta