Inspired by Places

An Apple For Autumn

This weekend is the March Equinox. One half of the world springs into Spring while the other half falls into Fall. I’m in the half that is falling into Fall, or as I more often call it – Autumn. I love this time of the year, when day and night are balanced. I love it even more knowing that colder weather is on its way! There are still sunny days ahead but the cooler nights remind us that the seasons are turning.

The Autumn Equinox is the second harvest festival on the Pagan calendar. Grains, fruits and nuts are traditional foods, as are breads, cakes, pies and other baked goods. Beer, cider and mead are great drinks to help wash down hearty Autumn fare while warming drinks such as mulled wines, ciders and piping hot chocolates provide comfort for lengthening nights.

When I think of Autumn, I think of apples and when I think of apples, I think of caramel apples! While holidaying in Las Vegas one Autumn, my best friend and I saw a store window filled with caramel apples. We were both too full to try one, so he took a photo instead. 

photo by Trevor

When I got home, I just had to create a cupcake version of a caramel apple. I think the perfect drink for these sweet apple cupcakes would be a warm mug of spicy mulled apple cider. 🙂

Caramel Apple Cupcakes

Ingredients
for the apple cupcakes
1 cup plain flour, sifted
1/3 cup almond meal
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon 
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
150g (2/3 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
2/3 cup sugar
1 egg, room temperature
2/3 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 apple, peeled, cored and chopped into small pieces  

for the salted caramel frosting
115g (1/2 cup) unsalted butter
1 cup dark brown sugar
1/3 cup double cream
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
2 – 3 cups icing (powdered) sugar, sifted

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 12 paper cases.
In a medium sized bowl, mix together the flour, almond meal, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and sea salt. Set aside.
In a separate bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Beat in the egg. Add the milk and vanilla and beat until combined.
Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and beat on low speed until just combined.
Fold in the apple pieces.
Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon the batter evenly into paper cases.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cupcake comes out clean.
Cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.
Make the frosting by melting the butter in a small saucepan over low heat. Once the butter has melted, turn the heat to medium and add the sugar and cream. Stir continually with a wooden spoon until the sugar has dissolved. Add the salt and allow to cook for 2 minutes, being careful not to burn the caramel. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
Place the caramel in a mixing bowl. Using an electric mixer, gradually beat in the powdered sugar until frosting is smooth and reaches a piping consistency. This will take a few minutes of beating to achieve. Spoon frosting into a piping bag and pipe onto cupcakes. 

The Cookie Woman

One of my favourite treats growing up was a visit to the Cookie Man in the Myer department store food hall in Melbourne. The Myer food hall was an adventure all of its own, but it was the Cookie Man that always lured me with its siren smell of freshly baked cookies.

Once lured, I would stare at the colourful and tantalising display of cookies, excitedly trying to work out which ones I would get and how many! I loved slowly picking cookies and watching them drop into the foil bag. My assortment always included Californians (flavoured with cinnamon and topped with a slivered almond) and Coffee Walnut (lightly flavoured with coffee and topped with a walnut half). I loved eating these cookies with a glass of milk or a cup of tea, but that didn’t stop me from opening the bag a few times before I got home. Luckily the bag was resealable!

Thinking about these cookies made me yearn for a cookie that combines the cinnamon flavour of a Californian with the flavours of a Coffee Walnut cookie. I decided to play around with some of my cookie recipes to create my very own Cookie Woman cookies. 🙂

Coffee, Cinnamon & Walnut Cookies
(Makes approximately 18)

Ingredients
1 cup plain flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground coffee (or to taste)
1/4 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
125g unsalted butter, room temperature 
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, room temperature
approximately 18 walnut halves for topping

Instructions
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Line 2 baking trays with baking paper.
Mix together the plain flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, coffee and walnuts. Set aside.
In a medium bowl cream together the butter and sugar until light and fluffy. 
Add the egg and beat well. 
Add the dry ingredients and mix until combined.
Drop tablespoons onto prepared trays. (Using a cookie scoop makes it much easier and gives a great shape).
Gently press a walnut half onto the top of the cookie.
Bake for 15 – 20 minutes or until the outer edges become slightly darker than the centre of the cookie.
Place on a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before serving.

A Taste of Rocky Roads

Earlier this year I attended a Rocky Road Workshop at Yarra Valley Chocolaterie. In the workshop we were presented with a table full of ingredients including a variety of spices, nuts, candies and dried fruits. Our first decision was what chocolate we wanted – dark, milk or white. I chose milk, as I find it doesn’t overpower the other ingredients. 

Once we received our tub of hot, melted chocolate, we were invited to throw in whatever ingredients we wanted and mix them in! I decided to go for an eclectic mix of some of my favourite things. 🙂 I added vanilla marshmallows, coconut, liquorice, honeycomb, peanut brittle, almonds and macadamia nuts. I had to work hard to get them all stirred in before the chocolate set. 

I rushed home so I could try my chocolatey concoction. I was really pleased with the result and enjoyed the liquorice, honeycomb and peanut brittle combination the most.

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I learned quite a few things at the workshop but the most exciting was the news that May is Rocky Road month at the chocolaterie. For each day of the month they create a new flavour of Rocky Road. You can visit every day and try the speciality of the day, or you can do what I did which is buy a set of 31 flavours in one large box. 

I had a huge smile on my face as I carried the roughly 5kg (11 pound) box of chocolates back to my car and, a number of weeks later, I’ve only just finished tasting them all. While I liked most of them my favourites are definitely Banoffee, Caramel Obsession, Fruity Floral Ruby, Mint Madness, Salty Pretzel, Tiramisu and Turkish Delight.

If you want to make your own Rocky Road you can check out my recipe here and play around with the ingredients. Let me know if you come up with any crazy and tasty concoctions! 🙂 

A Tasting Of Maple

The first full moon of the year, and the decade, fell on a weekend in Melbourne that had surprisingly mild weather for summer. To celebrate, I treated myself to brunch at Stokers Fine Pancakes. I chose a maple syrup tasting platter offering pancakes and three different grades of maple syrup. I couldn’t wait for the tasting to begin!

Maple syrup is made from the sap of maple trees. There are many species but the trees most commonly tapped for sap are sugar maple, red maple or black maple. To tap a maple tree, holes are drilled into the trunk and the sap is collected. The sap is then heated to remove most of the water leaving a concentrated syrup.

The Canadian Single Origin maple syrups on my tasting plate were from the Escuminac Estate. They are bottled on the estate, are unblended and sourced from a single forest. The styles were – Early Harvest, Great Harvest and Late Harvest. I tasted them in that order and was surprised at the differences between the three.

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The Early Harvest was the lightest in colour and the sweetest. It was also the most runny. It tasted lovely and was similar to the many maple syrups I have tried, only much better! The Great Harvest was darker and less sweet and also thicker. It was a step above the first and I really liked it. The star, however was the Late Harvest. It was the darkest, thickest and the least sweet of the three. It was so syrupy and had a dark caramel and toffee flavour. I loved it so much I bought a bottle to take home.

You can read about my first visit to Stokers Fine Pancakes, and its predecessor, in We’ll Always Have Stokers. 

You can also check out my recipes for pancakes to pour maple syrup over!
Pumpkin Pancakes
Stout Pancakes
Yeasted Pancakes

A Rosy Midsummer

The Summer Solstice occurs near xmas in Australia, so while I’m getting ready to celebrate the longest day of the year and the shortest night, most of the stores are selling produce geared towards a winter feast day. I don’t mind, as I always look forward to the range of new shortbreads that are only available during xmas.

One of the other winter treats I used to enjoy at Summer Solstice was a Persian fruitcake filled with plump fruits and crunchy nuts and delicately flavoured with rose water. It was one of the most delicious fruitcakes I had ever tried. Every xmas I eagerly waited for the fruitcake’s arrival at the store until one year it wasn’t there and it never returned. That was almost two decades ago.

A few months ago I went for a country drive to Malmsbury Bakery, famous for its homemade Dundee cake. I was keen to try to this Scottish fruitcake as it was rumoured to be a favourite of Mary Queen of Scots. Queen Elizabeth II is also reported to enjoy Dundee cake at teatime. A cake fit for royalty was something I just had to have!

The cake was quite large, but I was assured that once opened, it would keep for months in an airtight container. I wasn’t sure how long it would last but I was happy to take a chance. As I cut a generous slice I noticed how large and plump the glazed cherries were, which immediately brought back memories of my cherished Persian fruitcake. I took a bite and was rewarded with the flavour and texture of one of the best fruitcakes I had ever tasted. This was as good as the Persian fruitcake.

The cake lasted weeks and I enjoyed every slice. With only a few slices left I decided to make a bold experiment. Could I add a rose water element to a slice without ruining it? I had to try. At first I was going to sprinkle rose water over a slice but I decided to make a rose water icing instead. I simply mixed icing (powdered) sugar with rose water until it was thick enough to drizzle and then drizzled it over my slice of fruitcake. While it wasn’t my coveted Persian fruitcake, it was floral and delicious and brought back many happy memories of solstices past.

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In keeping with the xmas spirit I also dunked a few pieces of shortbread into the rose water icing and then let them set. Happily they were a delicious success as well.

Happy Solstice!

A Quartet Of Chocolates

Recently the culinary world was introduced to a pink chocolate called Ruby Chocolate. It was created by Barry Callebaut, a Belgian-Swiss company, and marketed as the “fourth chocolate” following dark, milk and white. It’s the first new variety of chocolate to be introduced in 80 years. The method of production remains a trade secret but industry suggests that the ruby cocoa beans are unfermented cocoa beans which can have a naturally pinkish colour. There are other things to know about the production method but I lost interest as all I wanted was to get my hands on some pink ruby chocolate!

When I finally got to try some ruby chocolate I was a little disappointed. It didn’t taste much like chocolate. To me it tasted like the yoghurt covered fruit balls I used to eat when I thought I was being healthy. Even though ruby chocolate contains cocoa solids like dark and milk chocolate, it just doesn’t have the taste or feel of chocolate. I didn’t dislike it, but I wouldn’t buy it again expect for creating recipes with a pink theme  – like a naturally pink chocolate frosting for a cupcake. 🙂

But wait there’s more!

Just in time for the holiday season, Barry Callebaut has introduced a new chocolate to the market called Gold Chocolate. While ruby was a new variety of chocolate, gold is a new flavour. The naturally gold coloured chocolate is made by adding caramelised milk and caramelised sugar to white chocolate. A touch of salt is also added. Naturally I couldn’t wait to try it.

San Churro Chocolateria have featured both ruby and gold chocolate on their menus. As a big fan of their churros, I decided to try gold chocolate as a dipping sauce. My platter of churros arrived with four dipping sauces, gold, ruby, dark and milk. I tried each chocolate sauce on its own before beginning a thoughtful dunking process. I began with gold, followed by ruby then milk then dark. The gold chocolate was reminiscent of salted caramel but not as sweet and with a distinct chocolate taste. It felt rich, creamy and decadent. The dipping sauce was garnished with little beads of gold chocolate and these gems were a true delight. I loved it! Surprisingly the ruby chocolate tasted great paired with the fried cinnamon magic that is a churro. The only thing that would have made this a perfect chocolate dipping experience is if there was a bowl of white chocolate. Then I could have enjoyed a pentagram of chocolates. 🙂 

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A Taste Of Autumn In Spring

The 8th of November is Bram Stoker’s birthday. Stoker was born in autumn in 1847 during the sign of Scorpio. His most famous creation is the gothic novel Dracula. 

Every year I like to celebrate his birthday by doing something special. This year I treated myself to an autumnal breakfast in the heart of spring.

The Coffeeologist is a cafe which recently opened near me. It’s been getting rave reviews so I couldn’t wait to go. The menu looked good and there were a few items I wanted to try. The Red Velvet Hotcakes were tempting as was the selection of sourdough fruit breads, but the winner was the Spiced Brioche. 

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My plate arrived and it looked beautiful. A pool of burnt apple puree supported a thick slice of spiced brioche French toast topped with a rasher of maple bacon, hazelnut cream and scattered with almond granola. I took one bite and thought “This tastes of Autumn!” Memories of Halloweens past and present and ideas for future Halloweens swirled in my mind while my taste buds were blown away by the cacophony of autumnal delights. I can think of no better way to celebrate the birth of the author of Dracula than with a Halloween treat. 🙂

This is my basic recipe for French Toast. Dress it up with a drizzle of maple syrup or go all out and add as many seasonal accompaniments as you like!

French Toast
Ingredients
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
butter or oil for frying
2 slices of bread*
maple syrup
seasonal accompaniments

Instructions
Lightly beat the egg in a bowl.
Add the milk and beat until combined.
Melt a small knob of butter or heat oil in a frying pan over medium heat.
Dip bread slices in the batter.
Place the bread into the frying pan and cook for 2 – 3 minutes or until golden brown.
Turn the slices over and cook the other side until golden brown, adding more butter or oil as needed.
Place on a serving plate and drizzle with maple syrup.
Add whatever seasonal accompaniments you desire.

*I usually use sliced white bread but you can use whatever bread you like.

Lammas Down Under

February 1st is Lammas or Lughnasadh in the Southern Hemisphere. In the pagan calendar it marks the halfway point between the Midsummer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. It is the first of the harvest festivals and the first autumn festival of the year. It is a time of thanksgiving and sacrifice. The name Lammas is derived from an Old English term for “loaf mass” while Lughnasadh is derived from the name of the Celtic God Lugh.

Back in my coven days we followed a Celtic calendar so we celebrated Lughnasadh. When I left the coven I tried to continue embracing this ritual but found it difficult. Using the name Lammas rather than Lughnasadh helped as I could focus on bread and the harvest rather than a male Celtic God. Unfortunately Lammas is celebrated in Australia during the hottest time of the year. Temperatures soar, days are hot and sticky and nights are warm and muggy. It’s hard to get into the spirit of a festival focussing on baked goods when you yourself are baking as long and hot as a Lammas loaf. So instead of baking bread, I thought I would concentrate on the thanksgiving part of Lammas and make a sandwich I had on a recent trip to the USA. 

One of the things I am really grateful for is being able to visit my dear friend Anne on Whidbey Island in Washington State. She was a great host and tour guide and took us to some fantastic places to eat. For our last meal on the island we had lunch at Pickles Deli. There was so much on offer so I took my time devising the perfect sandwich. For the fillings I chose turkey with cranberry sauce and mayonnaise. This combination always makes me think of a thanksgiving dinner. Feeling adventurous, I did something I have never done before, I chose lettuce leaves instead of bread as my wrapping. My bread-free sandwich was a light and fresh taste sensation!

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The great thing about this sandwich wrap is that you can make it with homemade ingredients or store-bought ones and you can also substitute chicken for the turkey. I’ve made it many ways and they have all been delicious.

You can read more about my travels and recipes from Whidbey Island and other parts of the USA in my book Bites and Pieces of America. 🙂

Cosy To A Tea

When you’re rumoured to have the best scones in Sydney you better deliver! Happily the Tea Cosy did just that. When we arrived we were greeted by a long queue of people eager to sample the Tea Cosy’s world-famous scones. We debated whether we should wait or leave, but when we saw the trays of scones being delivered to lucky tables, we eagerly joined the queue.

Located in Sydney’s famous Rocks area, the Tea Cosy is a heritage listed terrace house transformed into a sumptuous tea house. Adding to the old-world ambience are eclectic decorations and artworks which are scattered throughout the grand house. There are a variety of eating areas downstairs and a staircase leads to extra eating spaces upstairs including a few tables out on the balcony. The tables are decorated with baskets of wool with knitting needles and I watched lots of people knitting while they waited for their orders to arrive. A few patrons were chilly and they were offered knitted rugs to keep them warm. It had such a cosy feel, I couldn’t wait to be seated. 

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After waiting a surprisingly short time, we were told we had a table upstairs on the balcony. This was just where I was hoping we would be seated! We had a lovely view of the street below which kept us entertained while we waited for our much anticipated afternoon tea.

Our pots of tea arrived, snuggled in knitted cosies, followed by scones, jams and cream served in baskets. I loaded my scones with jam and cream and bit into them. Wow! I have eaten a lot of scones in a lot of different places and these were some of the best. 

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Feeling nourished and nurtured we relaxed and watched as two curious birds paid us a visit. The Tea Cosy is one of those rare places that lives up to its name and reputation.

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Not sure whether to add jam or cream first on a scone? Check out my previous post on cream teas which also includes a recipe for a cupcake cream tea 🙂

Sydney Under The Stars

My home state of Victoria is famous for having a public holiday for a horse race. Now we are becoming infamous for having a public holiday for a football match. Actually, it’s a holiday for the day before the football match which makes it even stranger. I’m not complaining. I’m grateful for any public holiday we can get! And it’s on a Friday, which I think is a great day to start a long weekend.

This year we went to Sydney and stayed at the Ultimo Hotel which is purported to be the world’s first astrology hotel. Among the services they offer are astrology reading packages that you can add to your booking. We didn’t do this but there was still heaps of astrological fun to be had.

On arrival we were greeted in reception by staff eager to talk astrology. They had city guides based on your star sign and astrologically appropriate “do not disturb signs.” I told them I was a sun sign Taurus with a Moon and Rising Sign in Sagittarius so they gave me both the Taurus and Sagittarius city guides. They offered me both a Taurus and Sagittarius door sign too but I only took the Taurus one as it said all that needed saying!

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Shifting seamlessly from astrology to astronomy, I booked myself two tours at the Sydney Observatory. My first tour was at night. It was a full moon which isn’t great for star gazing but I loved it, especially when bats started flying around! Peering through the enormous telescope I got to see Mars and Saturn. On the day tour I got to see the Sun which is a real treat as you have to have a special filter on the telescope to view it. Many years ago I was lucky enough to see Venus (my ruling planet) transit the Sun. While this Sun viewing wasn’t as spectacular it was still amazing. Both tours ended with a visit to the planetarium which was fun and informative.

When I returned to the hotel I noticed a selection of “Astrolo-Teas” in reception. These teas are specially selected to match your star sign. I looked at the one for Taurus which was English Breakfast. Not bad! I love English and Irish Breakfast although my favourite tea is Earl Grey. I then went to the Sagittarius tea which was Lemongrass and Ginger. This was another great match as I love ginger tea. Naturally I wanted to experiment with these flavours when I got home. 

As the weather is heating up here, I wanted to make an iced tea. I decided to create a chai blend because it can be served hot or cold. I used English Breakfast for Taurus and added ginger for Sagittarius. The great thing is you can mix and match ingredients for your own personal taste or create a blend that you think reflects your astrological profile!

Astrological Iced Chai

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Ingredients
3 cups milk
4 cardamon pods
4 black peppercorns
4 cloves
2 cinnamon sticks
30g fresh ginger, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons black tea leaves (I used English Breakfast)
2 tablespoons honey
ice cubes for serving

Instructions
Place the milk in a saucepan.
Crack the cardamon pods open and place the seeds and shells into the milk.
Crack the peppercorns and add to the milk.
Add the cloves, cinnamon stick and ginger to the milk.
Bring very slowly to the boil (you want it to take about 10 minutes) 
Once boiling add the tea leaves and simmer for 2-5 minutes, depending on how strong you like your tea.
Stir in the honey.
Strain tea and refrigerate until cold.
Serve over ice cubes.