Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Guest post: Belinda Murrell's unforgotten pearl of a cake

Sydney writer Belinda Murrell is the author of several thrilling adventure and fantasy novels for children, including The Sun Sword Trilogy, The Ivory Rose, The Ruby Talisman, and the Locket of Dreams. Belinda comes from a famous Australian literary family: her 19th century ancestor James Atkinson published his book on Australia in 1826, while his wife Charlotte wrote the first children's book ever to be published in Australia(1841). The family has been involved in things literary ever since, and Belinda's sister Kate Forsyth and brother Nick Humphrey are also best-selling authors. Belinda's new book, The Forgotten Pearl, is being released tomorrow, May 31, and to celebrate, I asked her if she'd write a guest post for A la mode frangourou. Enjoy!

 The Forgotten Pearl
by Belinda Murrell
Four years ago, my husband and I spent nearly two years travelling together with our three children having the most amazing adventures and experiences. This included five months in Europe (where I researched my books The Locket of Dreams and The Ruby Talisman), then about eighteen months travelling around Australia by 4WD. We spent several months in the exotic wilds of the Top End and I drew on these experiences while writing my new book, The Forgotten Pearl – the story of a teenage girl called Poppy and her experiences during World War 2. In 1941, Darwin is a remote outpost in the far north of Australia – a peaceful paradise far from the war. Poppy’s life seems perfect but when Japan attacks Pearl Harbour, then Australia, Poppy’s world is torn apart. Everything she holds dear is threatened – her family, her neighbours and her friends. The Forgotten Pearl is the story of Poppy’s own escape and her journey through love, grief, friendship and joy.
The book took months to research, and as the deadline to deliver it to my publisher loomed closer I became increasingly stressed and stretched. Like most mothers – as well as working, I am also a part-time school fund-raiser and volunteer/footy manager/chauffeur etc etc. The week before the book was due, I was also responsible for helping with my daughter’s fundraising cake stall including baking goods to sell. My beautiful sister-in-law Jenny Wall, came to my rescue and baked an enormous pile of cakes and biscuits for the stall. One of these was her wonderful Lemon Butter Cake which I happily bought and helped to consume, usually in the middle of the night while I was feverishly finishing the book.
Wonderful food and shared meals always feature strongly in my books – so it is probably little wonder that this lemon cake made a star appearance in the book. As my character Nanna says “This lemon cake is absolutely delicious… and is guaranteed to make anyone feel a whole lot better. Do you know that most of the troubles of the world can be solved with a cup of tea, a good chat and lemon cake?”
The Forgotten Pearl will be published on May 31.
Belinda’s website is 

Poppy’s Famous Lemon Cake recipe
Shortcake Base:
 2 cups self-raising flour, 1 cup caster sugar , 125 grams of butter softened, 2 eggs lightly beaten Lemon Butter: ½ cup lemon juice 1 cup sugar 2 eggs lightly beaten 125 grams of butter
 Preheat oven to 160 C. Place lemon butter ingredients (juice, sugar, eggs and butter) in a small saucepan over low heat. Stir constantly to melt butter. Once mixture is liquid, continue to whisk over low heat until lemon butter boils and thickens slightly (approximately 10 minutes) then set aside. Place flour and sugar In a large mixing bowl. Add softened butter and rub into dry ingredients with your fingers until it resembles fine breadcrumbs. Make a well in the centre of the mix and add beaten eggs. Mix through to form stiff dough. Grease a round or square cake tin or line with baking paper. Press 2/3 of the dough mixture into the cake tin. Pour the hot lemon butter over the base then crumble the remaining dough over the lemon filling. Bake in the oven for about 45 minutes or until the cake is golden. If the oven is too hot, the lemon butter will burn. Allow the cake to cool in the tin. Dust the top of the cake with icing sugar. This cake can also be served with whipped cream and berries.
Bon App├ętit!

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Tahitian fish delights

When I was a child, my father sometimes used to make what he called 'poisson Tahitien', or Tahitian fish, which basically was very fresh, very good, tasty white fish fillets,such as John Dory or bream or whatever, sliced thinly and marinated in lemon juice, salt and pepper, left in the fridge or other cool place for several hours and then eaten as was, for an entree or appetiser. We all loved it. At the time I'd never heard of sashimi or ceviche or other raw(ish) fish dishes common in other cultures, and nobody we knew in Sydney had ever heard of Tahitian fish either(I do believe though that it was inspired by an actual Tahitian method of preparing fish.) Indeed most people looked disgusted if you ever mentioned it--to such sceptics Dad maintained that the lemon juice 'cooked' the fish just as effectively as heat, and that he only ever used the freshest fish, but he didn't convince all that many people!
Now of course eating raw or raw-ish fish is widely accepted, as Australians have become used to such things in sampling Japanese or Mexican cuisine. I've become a fan of sashimi and ceviche myself, but I'm still very fond of Tahitian fish though these days I experiment with several different variations of it, using different sorts of fish as well, and not just the basics of white-fleshed fish and lemon juice. But I always follow the cardinal rule, drilled into us by our father: always choose the freshest fish, keep it in the cool, preferably in the fridge, and though you should let it marinate for a few hours, never let it stay for more than 24 hours uneaten. Despite having eaten quantities of Tahitian fish over the years, I have never ever had even the slightest queasy twinge from it--in fact the only times I've ever been ill with seafood or fish, it's been with conventionally cooked dishes(and in fact only in restaurants.).
I've varied the marinating liquid--lemon, lime, even orange juice, vinegars of different types--red wine vinegar for instance, makes a wonderful marinade for Atlantic salmon--and varied the fish too, from dory and snapper to tuna and salmon and trout, and added various seasonings as well as salt and pepper--herbs of all sorts and chilli, for instance, but also more exotic things still. And I also often add a touch of olive oil, especially to fish such as tuna.
The other day, I made two varieties of Tahitian fish the other day for a family get-together: a tuna one and a salmon one. For the Tahitian tuna, after slicing the tuna, I marinaded it in lime juice, coriander, ginger, and salt and pepper, with a little olive oil added(Quantities depend on how much fish you have, it needs to be covered but not drowning in it.). For the Tahitian salmon, I used balsamic vinegar and pomegranate juice and seeds, with a little salt added: salmon and trout are both delicious with slightly sweetish but tangy marinades, and the combination of the balsamic vinegar and the pomegranate makes the perfect mixture. Both of them were very popular indeed!

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Salsify and carbonnade

One of my favourite root vegetables is the salsify. With its delicious melt-in-the-mouth texture and subtle flavour, in France it's very common indeed and easily obtainable in any market. But in Australia it's very hard to find though in truth it grows wild in many places. Wild salsify isn't much good, though; the root, which is what you eat, is too thin and spindly and by the time you've peeled the unpalatable skin off, you don't have much flesh left. David searched for ages for domesticated salsify seed and finally tracked some down; and though the first year nothing much happened, somehow this year it's taken off. Our salsify isn't as big as the ones you get in France, but they are much bigger than the wild variety, and they've made some wonderful entrees(as in the photo) and vegetable side dishes.They can of course also proudly take their place on a vegetarian table, either as side dish to, say, Puty lentils, or as an unusual centrepiece in themselves.
To prepare salsify,  have a bowl or pan of cold water ready with a dash of vinegar in it. Cut off the tops, peel the roots and as you go, drop each peeled root into the vinegared water(if you don't do this, the roots will discolour). Then cut them into pieces as required, and cook: stir them first in a little melted butter, add salt, pepper, and just enough water to cover--though a touch of wine and stock mixed is even nicer. Cook till a knife goes through them easily. Drain, serve with a little butter and herbs. You can add sliced garlic too if you like though it might overwhelm the salsify's delicate flavour. In the entree dish of salsify in the photo, David added some chopped smoked salmon to it, which made a lovely contrast. As a side dish, salsify is yummy with all kinds of meats, but especially poultry and pork.
Such as the pork carbonnade also illustrated, which I made the other day. This very typical Gascon dish uses pork and prunes to create a lovely marriage of flavours. And it's dead simple to prepare. Fry the pork chops first till they're well-seared(but not thoroughly cooked), add salt, pepper, a touch of Armagnac(preferably) or cognac or brandy if you don't have Armagnac. Take the chops out of the pan, lay in a baking dish. Fry some chopped onions in the same juices as the pork. Pour cooked onions and juices over the meat. Add chopped prunes(without stones of course), sprinkle on top. Sprinkle with a little olive oil, another small splash of Armagnac/brandy. Bake in oven for about 20 minutes or until pork is well-cooked and prunes have almost melted together in a kind of soft mash. Serve with salsify or with garlicky potatoes cooked in duck fat, and a green salad.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

An unusual twist to an old favourite

Pumpkin soup has got to be one of the classic cold-weather warmers. With its cheerful colour, cosily thick texture and distinctive taste, it's one of those dishes that turns up frequently on our autumn and winter table, especially when, as in this year, the garden is full of pumpkins. And they're all self-sown too, a prolific explosion of hybrid fertility, combining last year's Golden Nugget and Queensland Blue genes to create a pumpkin that's half way in size between the small Nuggets and the big Blues, with the Nugget's beautiful deep orange colour and the Blue's striated shape, making them look rather like the kind of thing Cinderella's fairy godmother touched with her magic wand.
It's a humbler kind of magic, turning them into soup, but more reliable, no midnight disappearance for that! (Unless of course someone gets up in the middle of the night feeling peckish..) And though we've made pumpkin soup hundreds of times in many different permutations and different ingredients, this is the first year we've hit on a new way of cooking it. And it was born out of frustration, for as well as the Blue's nice shape, this hybrid of ours has inherited the Blue's hatchet-blunting tough skin.
So what did we do? Instead of blunting knives and hatchets whilst also cutting fingers, or throwing the pumpkin on the floor to smash it into segments(as we've done before on occasion!)we cut off a bit from the top of the pumpkin(around the stalk), scooped out all the seeds, baked the pumpkin, covered in aluminium foil, in the oven for about 25-30 minutes, took it out again and then filled the central hole with chopped onions, garlic, herbs and chicken stock, then put it back in the oven to bake for a further 15-20 minutes or so. By this time all the flesh inside will have cooked,and you can either swirl it in with the stock etc to combine and serve as is, or, as we prefer to do, to tip out the liquid into a saucepan, and then add all the scooped-out flesh, mash a little, swirl to mix, add a little extra if you like: a little fresh chilli, or sour cream, or extra herbs or garlic, and then serve!
This method of cooking intensifies the flavour of the soup and really brings out the full colour of the pumpkin. And it's so much easier than trying to get the better of that pumpkin armour!