My sister’s a great fan of all things quince. The first time she tasted it was when she was living in Angola many years ago. She was out shopping and bought a tin of what she thought was marmalade. The tin was labelled in Portuguese and, as she was still learning the language, she understandably thought that marmelo meant marmalade. As it turned out, it meant quince paste – also known as quince cheese.

She was an instant convert and went on to track down the raw fruit, finding the flavour astringent, rather tart and very much to her taste. I, however, had only ever tasted quince jelly (jam) until fairly recently and wasn’t overly impressed with it. But that was before I tried my hand at all things quince…

It all came about because friends of ours (Don and Ann) have nine mature quince trees on their property down in Collie, about 200km south east of Perth. A few weeks ago, when the bulk of their fruit was ripe, they decided to put a halt to trail of destruction that the local bird life was inflicting on the crop. To this end, they spent a couple of weekends stripping the fruit off all nine trees – and ended up with a LOT of surplus-to-requirement fruit.

So, one Sunday evening, the phone rang. It was Don, and the conversation went something like this: ‘Hello? Nik? Are you guys interested in some quinces? I have a few in my car and I’m half way back to Perth…’ ‘Sure, why not?’, said I, somewhat naively. ‘I’m sure I can do something with them…’

Don and his fruit-mobile arrived a couple of hours later. When I exclaimed at the quantity of fruit he presented us with, he just laughed – then told me I should see what was still in his car! Our share was four large carry bags of fruit, each bag containing about 45 quinces. This equated to approximately 9kg per bag (we weighed them!), which means we had in the region of 36kg of quinces in our fridge… and no idea what to do with them.

The fridge smelled terrific but I found that I don’t enjoy the fruit raw. Since I can’t bear to waste food, it became my mission to find out how to prepare it. I started by researching quinces and quince trees in general. I discovered that they’re related to roses, apples, pears, almonds, plums and apricots – that was a surprise. The trees are deciduous, hardy and drought-tolerant. They don’t require much maintenance (such as pruning, spraying, etc.), are self-pollinating and thrive in wide variety of climates – from temperate regions all the way through to the sub-tropics.

Quinces can be stored for up to three months in the fridge. They’re strange-looking fruit – a little like a cross between an apple and a pear in shape. But they’re slightly knobbly and their skin is both waxy and slightly furry to the touch. As the fruit ripens it goes from a light green to a lovely golden yellow and becomes surprisingly strongly and sweetly perfumed. It’s a very solid/dense fruit, but I’ve found that it bruises surprisingly easily – so some care is required when handling and preparing it.

I managed to offload about dozen or so fruit to DaughterDearest and saved a few for my sister, but have managed to process almost all the rest (we have about ten left). I discovered that the flesh, which starts off butter-coloured, turns pink and then a deep red when cooked – that was a surprise. My first adventure was quince paste – this was an epic endeavour that took thirteen hours all up. The slicing, dicing, cooking, stirring, pureeing and reducing took about seven hours. After this the mixture it went into a low oven for a further six hours to finish setting. Wow. The upside is that quince paste makes a great addition to cheese platters and keeps really well – which is lucky, since we now have a freezer full of it!

Next I tried two varieties of fruit leather – one spiced with cardamom, cinnamon and so forth, and the other with honey and lemon. Both turned out really well and we have a whole heap of that in the fridge.

We’ve also been eating slow-poached spiced quince on our muesli & yoghurt every morning for the past couple of weeks and I even made a quince (and almond) cake at the weekend. That was super-tasty too and well worth repeating. A big stride forward was to find that the fruit can be pressure cooked to save time, although I only found that out towards the end of the production line. I’ll know better next time.

All in all, I feel I’ve conquered quinces and done justice to Don and Ann’s gift of (36kg!) of quinces – but it’s definitely time to move on to other culinary adventures 🙂

I’d never heard Napoleon Cake until Ma-in-law put in a request for one for her 80th birthday. I can see why her mum only used to make it on rare (and very special) occasions, despite it being a much-loved treat. Whilst the cake part is simple enough (it’s just a sponge), the surrounding layers are what make it a bit of a challenge – the first time round anyway.

It starts with a layer of baked puff pastry, topped with a generous layer of butter cream (aka ‘mock cream’). Next comes a layer of raspberry jam, the sponge cake, more jam, more ‘cream’ and then a second layer of baked pastry. On top of this little lot goes a layer of sticky super-sweet pink icing to finish it off.

Protip #1: Back in the day, Ma-in-law’s mum used to actually make the pastry by hand, as it was well before the days of the frozen store-bought variety. Seriously, just use the frozen variety! It cuts down the construction time and simplifies things a whole bunch. Besides which, when she tasted the test-run, Ma said it was much nicer and lighter than the pastry her mum used to make 🙂

The cake took a whole afternoon to prepare and construct, but looked amazing in the end. The tricky parts were the butter cream, the bake-time for the pastry, the sheer stickyness of it all – and bringing it all together.

Protip #2: An extra pair of hands is essential at the end point. Himself was calm throughout my sticky dramatics and his help really was invaluable for the final assembly stage.

The response from visitors here for the afternoon ranged from Delicious! More? (Suz) to OMG! Instant diabetes… but sooo good! (K) 🙂

Daughter Dearest suggested we try a cream cheese icing in place of the butter cream to cut down on the sweetness factor, which might be worth a try at some point.

But not for Ma-in-law’s birthday party. What we made was exactly what she wanted, sweetness overload and all. It was 100% worth it when we took some of the finished product round to the Parents’ place that evening. Ma opened the front door and her whole face lit up.

Oh!, she said. Napoleon Cake! How Wonderful!

She enjoyed every delicious morsel – and has put in a firm request for a super-sized version for her birthday. So we’ll be having a Napoleon Bake-a-thon here in late February to construct the one cake to rule them all. If anyone wants to give a hand, let me know. 🙂

Here’s the recipe in case you’re interested in giving it a try at home. It’s based it on one provided by Sharen from Bundaberg, Queensland.  Her recipes range from pure indulgence to plain comfort food. They’re all traditional family favourites and she’s well and truly tested them all. I’m going to give her breakfast bake a try next.

For your Napoleon Cake you’ll need:
2 sheets of frozen puff pastry
½ cup raspberry jam – and everything listed below for the other layers.

For the Sponge Cake
2 large eggs
1 tsp vanilla bean paste
⅓ cup caster sugar
⅓ cup self raising flour
2 Tblsp cornflour

For the Butter Cream:
125g unsalted softened butter (½ cup)
2 cups icing sugar, sifted
2 Tblsp milk
¼ – ½ tsp vanilla bean paste / vanilla essence

For the pink icing
1 cup icing sugar
1 tsp soft butter
A dash of red food colouring
2 tsp milk (approx)

Protip #3: Start by making the sponge cake layer; it’s the easiest bit!

The Cake Layer
•    Preheat oven to 180C
•    Line a square cake pan with baking paper – mine is about 20cm and it worked well
•    Beat eggs and vanilla (use an electric mixer!) while you gradually add the sugar. Continue beating until the sugar is all dissolved and the mix light and fluffy
•    Sieve the flour & cornflour, then gently fold it into the mixture
•    Pour the mix into your prepared cake pan and bake for approx 15 minutes. The cake should be golden and springy to the touch when you take it out
•    Remove the cake from the tin and place on cake rack to cool completely **

The Pastry Layers
•    Increase your oven temperature to 210C
•    Line 2 baking trays with baking paper and place one puff pasty sheet on each
•    Bake for about 10 minutes, until the pastry is well risen, golden and crispy looking
•    Leaving the hot pastry on the trays, gently flatten each sheet with the bottom of the (now empty) cake tin**
•    Using the cake tin as a template, trim the pastry sheets to the same size as the cake
•    Now leave the pastry on the baking trays to cool
Protip #4: Don’t take the pastry out too soon or you’ll need to redo this step. #life lesson!

The Butter Cream Layer
•    Beat the softened butter until smooth; use the paddle attachment of your electric mixer
•    Gradually beat in the icing sugar until well mixed & fluffy
•    Add vanilla to taste
•    Add the milk and beat again until a smooth consistency and texture is achieved
Protip #5: My first attempt at this was an epic (!) fail. Be patient. Taste as you go and make sure the end result really is smooth.

Preparing the Pink Icing
•    Sieve the icing sugar into a microwave safe bowl
•    Mix in the butter and enough milk to form a stiff paste
•    Add food colouring until you have a nice shade of pink 🙂
•    Microwave the icing 10 seconds, then stir well
•    Repeat this step until the icing mix is runny

Assembling the Cake
•    Place one baked puff pastry sheet on a serving plate & spread it with half the butter cream
•    Now spread half the jam on top of the cake and invert the cake onto the butter cream layer
•    Carefully spread the rest of the jam on top of the cake layer
•    Next spread the remaining butter cream on one side of the remaining sheet of baked puff pastry, then invert and position the pastry sheet on top of the other layers.
•   Pour the icing onto the top of the cake (slowly and carefully) and smooth with a knife / spatula
•    Pop the cake in the fridge to let the icing and mock cream firm up a bit

To Serve
•    Cut the cake into rectangles to serve
•    Use a serrated knife to do this. ‘Saw’ through the pastry gently so that you don’t squish the filling
Protip #6: This cake is SUPER sweet, so don’t make the slices huge!

One of our longstanding household Xmas traditions has been to host a ‘waifs & orphans’ gathering on Boxing Day. Various people (not necessarily waifs or orphans) drop in throughout the day, starting mid-morning. Some stay just long enough for a slice of fruitcake and a cuppa, others stay on for lunch, and the late arrivals eat the leftovers. It’s a relaxed sort of day and usually includes random frivolity around the pool, games of boules and whatever else comes to mind. Much low-key fun.

This year, mostly because of my fractured knee, we decided to shift gears and introduce a pre-Xmas gathering instead. The idea was that this’d encourage me to have some (highly desirable) R&R on Boxing Day. In theory at least.

Plans were hatched and we invited a selection of family and might-as-well-be-family to join us for what we called our Inaugural Eggnog Night.

Now, the last time I tried eggnog was many decades ago when my housemate and I found a recipe in a cordon bleu Xmas book I’d been given. Having no idea what to expect, we made a batch… and both thought it was dreadful stuff! The raw egg taste, loosely concealed by the taste of student-affordable rum, was dire in the extreme.

So I guess this does beg the question: Why eggnog?

And the only answer I have is: Eh, why not? It’s the silly-season, after all 🙂

Besides which, every gathering needs a focus – and I’d just found an oddly intriguing recipe for a cooked eggnog. With years more kitchen experience under my belt than in those far-off student days – and better quality rum in stock – it sounded plausible. Since ex-housemate (now sister-in-law*), would be coming along we’d be able to compare notes.

For those who’ve never tried cooked eggnog, it’s essentially a rich egg custard made to a pouring consistency. The rum (or brandy, if you prefer) is added just before serving and there is no raw-egg taste at all. In fact, it’s both very tasty and deliciously rich and creamy – rather like a cream-based liqueur.

The test batch worked well, so I made a veritable vat-o’-nogg for the night. Both it – and the eggnog pie I made with some of it – proved very popular with all, including *SiL. Half the mix was left rum-free for those who’re not that way inclined and they enjoyed it too – which tells me it wasn’t just the better quality rum at work!

I’ll have to experiment with lactose-free milk and cream to see if I can make a batch that works for my lovelies who’re lactose intolerant – but that’s for next time. And yes, there will be a next time. Things are shaping up for Eggnog Night to be the new item on the calendar at Menagerie10 (our place).

If you’d like to make the eggnog and/or the pie, here are the recipes. Let me know how you go and whether you enjoyed them as much as the waifs-orphans-and-others did 🙂

The recipes

1. Cooked Eggnog (this quantity serves 2, but can be scaled up very successfully. I’ve based it on this recipe.)

NOTE: be patient when you make this. Just as with any cooked custard, rushing will do little other than ensure that the mix either curdles or scorches. Just keep the temperature low, stir continuously to ensure even heat distribution and think happy egg-boggy thoughts 🙂

You’ll need: 2 large eggs, 1/4 – 1/3 cup white sugar (depending on how sweet you want it), 2/3 cup full cream milk, 2/3 cup regular whipping cream (NOT thickened cream), ½ tsp vanilla bean paste, about ¼ tsp ground nutmeg. You’ll also need a heavy-based saucepan, whisk, metal spoon, 2 mixing bowls, a metal sieve, and a food/candy thermometer.

  • Break the eggs into the bowl; add the sugar and whisk well. Pour the milk into the saucepan and heat over a low heat to 160F – do NOT boil. Remove from the heat when it gets to 160F.
  • After a quick re-whisking of the egg/sugar mix, SLOWLY pour the hot milk into it. It’s really (really) important to do this slowly and to whisk the mix continuously while you’re doing it – otherwise you’ll end up with little lumps of cooked egg in the mix.
  • Pour the combined mix BACK into your saucepan and return it to the stovetop. Bring it back up to 160F, stirring continuously. This will ensure that your mix doesn’t stick to the edges, or scorch/burn on the bottom of the pan.
  • Bring the mix back up to 71C (160F), stirring continuously to avoid it sticking or burning. Your aim is for the mixture to thicken slightly, to the point where it will coat the back of your spoon. Be patient, as this takes a while, and keep the heat low/medium-low while you continue to move the whisk around the sides and bottom of the pant.
  • Once you’ve reached spoon-coating stage, stir the mix really well and remove the pan from the heat and set aside.
  • Pour the cream and vanilla into a clean mixing bowl and whisk until the cream thickens slightly (use an electric whisk if you have one – it’s much quicker!). Stir in the nutmeg.
  • Stir your still-hot egg mix, THEN slowly pour this into the cream-vanilla mix, whisking lightly to combine as you pour. Now pour the mix through a sieve to strain out any lumpy bits.
  • Refrigerate the eggnog, preferably overnight – or at least for several hours, until cold. Stir in 30- 50ml of rum per cup of eggnog just before serving , depending on preference.

2. Eggnog Pie

This is based on this recipe and is rather like a traditional South African milk tart, but is firmer, less milky and has a delicious ginger crust that makes it even more tasty. It’s also super easy.

The piecrust: 1½ cups ginger biscuit cookie crumbs (the Ikea ginger biscuits work well, but any will do), 1 Tblsp brown sugar, ½ tsp ground ginger, 100g melted butter

  • Combine all ingredients in a medium sized bowl, then press the mix into the bottom and sides of a pie plate.
  • Bake at 350F / 180C for 10 minutes, then cool completely.

The filling: 1 standard vanilla instant pudding (about 100g), 1½ cups eggnog (you can use the bought stuff, but why not just make some?), 2 cups regular whipping cream.

  • Whip the cream until it’s thick and fluffy, but not too stiff.
  • In another bowl, combine the instant pudding mix and eggnog.
  • Fold the whipped cream into the pudding/eggnog mix and combine well.
  • Spoon this mixture into the (cooled) piecrust.
  • Sprinkle with cinnamon sugar, then refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.

 

So many charitable organisations these days want detailed information from donors. This, of course, is so that they can encourage people to become repeat donors, to buy lottery tickets, to sponsor and support – on their terms.

In many cases, however, this ploy often has a negative effect on those self same donors. Many kind and helpful people end up with donor fatigue. We feel taken advantage of or harassed and many of us opt out of donating at all. But the thing is that many of us aren’t necessarily tired of donating or helping. In fact we’d love to.

But how do we help? Where can we give on our own terms, rather than on those imposed on us by one or other organization?

With Christmas on the horizon, I was thinking about all this quite a lot. Then, a few weeks ago, I found out about Manna’s Hampers for the Homeless initiative. It spoke directly to my ongoing concern that not everyone gets to eat every day, even in Australia.

The idea of providing some basic necessities for people in need had enormous appeal. So I put the suggestion out, asking people I know – and people they know – to consider stepping up and helping out, at whatever level they were comfortable with.

And you did.

Donations started to arrive on our doorstep a few days later and soon my study was overflowing with tins of baked beans and tuna, with toothpaste, biscuits, lollies and more. I’ve been both humbled and overwhelmed by the response.

Thank you. Thank you for letting me know how this has impacted on each of you. I agree that the stark contrast to our far more privileged lives is sobering – and the realization that our contributions will make a real difference to people’s lives is indeed heart-warming,

I thought you’d like to know that we surpassed our arbitrarily chosen target for donations by a goodly margin. Between us we gathered 15 complete hampers, as well as some carry-over items. Lolo Caseiro, the Kitchen Manager at Manna, and her son Kai helped me unload the boxes when I delivered them to the depot this morning. They were delighted with everything and assured me that it would all be used. They’ll be distributing 300 hampers to the homeless of Perth close to or on Christmas Day and our contributions will be included.

We did a good thing, folks.

xmas-hampers-for-the-homeless_2016

Lolo and Kai at Manna with our hamper contributions.

 

Have you ever walked past a homeless person, perhaps in an arcade or in a bus station? And have you ever thought something along the lines of how hard their life must be compared to your own? I certainly have.

There is a fine line between living a life inside society and enjoying its privileges, and one lived having fallen through the cracks. Those cracks  must just seem to get deeper and deeper – and finding a way out could rapidly become insurmountably difficult. Or at least seems to be so when living it.

Perhaps it was thoughts like these that got me to start up our Foodbank charity food drive late last year. Since then we’ve generated a steady slow flame of community support, and delivering the accumulated goods to the Foodbank depot regularly every three months. It’s been a tangible way of helping those in need – and a mindful acknowledgment of how much we have by comparison to them.

This quarter we’ve decided to shift our focus slightly. We’ll be supporting the Manna Christmas Hamper for the Homeless project. Manna has been providing food for the homeless since its inception in 1996, when the founders drove past a group of homeless people taking shelter under a tree on a cold and rainy Perth afternoon. The group was still there hours later when they passed by again. So they went home and made them some soup.

From these gentle and kind beginnings grew an organisation that’s continued to gain momentum, providing hot meals and other simple home comforts to the needy and disadvantaged in Perth. The people for whom the cracks are widest.

This year, at a time when we all get together to celebrate family and friendship, to share gifts and food, I thought that perhaps we could all spare a thought – and a few items – to help them out.

So I invite you participate in our Christmas Hamper Food Appeal.

All it takes it to put together one or more hampers for the homeless and needy of Perth. The list that Manna provides is heartbreakingly simple, so much so that it brought me to tears when I read it. The ask is really so very small.

Why not join us in trying to make this a slightly jollier season for others?manna_hampers-for-the-homeless-2016

Please note: We’ll be delivering all hamper donations to the Manna depot at the end of the first week in December.