sweets

Following The Sun

Monday August 1st is Imbolc in the southern hemisphere. It is the midpoint between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. Traditionally it is the first day of spring. Even though winter is still in full swing, the promise of the sun returning is awakened on Imbolc.

To celebrate the return of the sun I thought I would explore a solar symbol – the sunflower. Sunflowers are of the genus Helianthus, named after Helios, the Greek God of the Sun. While they are growing, young sunflower buds track the movement of the sun from east to west. This is called heliotropism. Once they bloom, sunflowers generally face east – the direction of the rising sun. For me sunflowers symbolise a beautiful solar dance and are a symbol for the impending return of the summer sun.

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Sunflowers are also an important food crop. Sunflower seeds and sunflower oil can be used in many ways in cooking. I was tempted to make sunflower muesli bars but then I thought I would make one of my favourite desserts – baklava.

Sunflower Seed Baklava
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Ingredients
for the filling
1 cup hulled sunflowers seeds
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup walnuts
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

for the pastry
125g unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
375g packet of filo pastry

for the syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup water
1 cinnamon stick
1 teaspoon lemon juice

Method
Place the sunflower seeds, pine nuts and walnuts into a food processor or blender. Process until finely chopped.
Add the sugar and cinnamon and mix until just combined.
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Generously brush the bottom and sides of a baking tray with melted butter.
Unroll the filo onto a chopping board. Cut the whole stack to fit your baking dish.
To prevent the pastry drying out, cover the filo sheets with a damp tea towel.
Working with one sheet at a time, place in the baking tray and brush with butter.
Repeat until roughly half of the sheets of filo have been buttered.
Spread the filling evenly over the top.
Place one sheet at a time over the top and brush with butter until they have all been used.
Using a sharp knife, carefully cut the pastry layers into square or diamond shapes.
Bake for 50 minutes or until the pastry is golden and crisp.
While the pastry is baking, make the syrup by placing the sugar, water, cinnamon and lemon juice in a small saucepan.
Bring to a boil while stirring to dissolve the sugar.
Reduce heat and simmer for 10 minutes.
Set aside to cool.
When the baklava is baked, pour the cool syrup over the top of the hot baklava.
Allow to soak for at least 5 hours.

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A Touch Of Tahini

I found this gorgeous recipe for Peanut Butter Blondies on Brittany’s blog Life In Lipstick. As a peanut butter fan I had to give them a try. The recipe was so easy and the blondies were so good! The peanut butter flavour was perfect. The only changes I made to the recipe were minor technical ones to suit my own style. I lined the baking pan with baking paper rather than greasing it. I beat the egg before adding it to the recipe. I also used a wire whisk and spatula for mixing rather than an electric mixer. This is another recipe I will make again and again 🙂

When I first read through the recipe I thought I would add 1/2 a teaspoon of baking powder to give it a bit of a rise. The result was a little cake-like and very good. Next time I decided to follow the recipe and leave out the baking powder. The result – a crispy outer and a soft, chewy centre. In other words, perfection!

Naturally I had to experiment some more. As a big tahini fan, I decided to try substituting half of the peanut butter with tahini. It worked! It brought back memories of one of my favourite desserts – tahini halva. I might play around with other nut butters and see what happens 🙂

Peanut Butter and Tahini Blondies 

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Ingredients
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, melted
1 cup light brown sugar
1 egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup tahini
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup flour

Instructions
Preheat oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 20 x 25cm baking pan with baking paper.
Using a wire whisk, mix together the melted butter and light brown sugar. Add the beaten egg and vanilla. Whisk until combined.
Add the peanut butter and tahini. Whisk until combined.
Add the salt and flour. Using a spatula, mix until combined.
Spread the mixture evenly in the prepared baking pan. The batter will be very thick, so spread it out as flat as you can.
Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a tooth pick inserted in the middle comes out clean.
Place on a wire rack.
Allow to cool before cutting into pieces.

A Toast For Saint Patrick’s Day

I’m not a big fan of Saint Patrick’s Day. I mean the guy was supposed to have driven all the snakes out of Ireland. As Ireland supposedly never had snakes, it is now generally accepted that the snakes he drove out were Pagans! Since I like both snakes and Pagans, it’s not really a day of celebration for me.

However, Saint Patrick didn’t really succeed in ridding Ireland of Pagans. So with this in mind I think I’ll celebrate this Saint Patrick’s Day in a true Pagan way – with food and drink!

So raise your glasses, or your cupcakes, and celebrate with some great Irish spirits – Irish whiskey and Irish cream!

St Patrick’s Day Cupcakes

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These Irish Whiskey cupcakes topped with Irish Cream frosting are in no danger of being driven out of Ireland by St Patrick! 

Special Equipment:
12 green paper cupcake cases

Ingredients
for the whiskey cupcakes:
1 + 1/2 cups flour
1 + 1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 cup (170g) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs, room temperature
3 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup Irish whiskey
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

for the Irish cream frosting
2 + 1/2 cups double cream
2 + 1/2 tablespoons powdered (icing) sugar
1/4 cup Irish cream liqueur

Instructions
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 12 green paper cases.
In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, cream the butter and sugar with an electric mixer until creamy.
Add the eggs one at a time and beat until just combined.
Add the flour mix and, using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix until just combined.
Add the milk, whiskey and vanilla and mix until combined.
Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon the batter evenly into paper cases.
Bake for 10 – 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cupcake comes out clean. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

While cupcakes are cooling make the whipped cream by whipping together the cream and powdered sugar with an electric mixer on medium speed until stiff peaks form. Stir in the Irish cream until just combined. Spoon whipped cream into a piping bag and pipe onto cupcakes.

You can add green food colouring to the cake or frosting and garnish with green decorations if you like.

For another Irish whiskey/cream connection check out my tribute to an Irish Coffee.

A Wonderful Life?

I don’t really like the movie It’s A Wonderful Life. I mean it’s a great film but I really feel sorry for George. There were so many things he wanted to do, like travel and build things, but he repeatedly puts his life on hold for the benefit of others. While noble, the hedonist in me always asks – what does he get for his sacrifice? Well he gets family, community and the knowledge that he has saved many, many lives. But the one life he doesn’t really get to live is his own. Well that is my brief take on this xmas classic that was based on a short story that was made into a xmas card. The story behind It’s A Wonderful Life is as fascinating as the film.

Equally fascinating is It’s A Wunderful Life, the story of San Diego’s giant panda cub Mr Wu, as told through the talented eyes of Anne Belov, creator of The Panda Chronicles. Mr Wu laments the birth of so many panda cubs in America as they are taking attention away from his cute self. When he wonders what the world would be like without these new panda cubs, the angelic Bee the Bear shows him what the world would be like if no new pandas were born – including Mr Wu! Whats follows is an extraordinary tale of cat domination, shady petting zoos and beer drinking pandas. A world without baby pandas is grim indeed. You can find It’s A Wunderful Life at the Panda Chronicles or you can read about Mr Wu’s many adventures, including my personal favourite The Wizard Of Wu, in The Panda Chronicles Book 4: The Book of Wu.

As many of you know, Anne Belov and I are working together on The Panda Chronicles Cuppycake Cookbook: Favourite Recipes of the Panda Kindergarten – a cupcake (or cuppycake) cookbook based on The Panda Chronicles.

Inspired by the thought of beer drinking pandas I have also created this very special beer cuppycake topped with a butter and cream cheese frosting and decorated with candied bacon. And this is the cartoon that inspired me!

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Beer Cuppycakes
After a hard day eating bamboo, some pandas like to put their paws up and relax with a refreshing beer cuppycake.

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This recipe makes enough batter for 24 mini cuppycakes and 2 full sized cuppycakes. You can make them all full sized but I’m not sure how many they make 🙂

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Ingredients
for the beer cuppycakes:
1 + 1/2 cups flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 cup (115g) unsalted butter, melted
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1 egg, room temperature
1/2 cup pale ale
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

for the candied bacon
3 shortcut bacon rashers
2 teaspoons brown sugar (approximately)

for the buttercream frosting
3/4 cups (170g) cream cheese, softened
3/4 cups (170g) unsalted butter, softened
1 + 1/2 cups powdered (icing) sugar, sifted

Instructions
To make the mini beer cuppycakes, preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Line a 24-hole muffin pan with 24 paper cases and a 12-hole muffin pan with 2 paper cases.
In a small bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder and salt. Set aside.
In a large bowl, mix the melted butter and sugar together with an electric mixer on medium speed for 2 minutes or until combined.
Add the egg and beat until combined.
Add the beer and vanilla and beat until combined.
Gradually add the flour mix and, using a wooden spoon or spatula, mix until just combined.
Spoon the batter evenly into the 24 mini paper cases and the 2 larger paper cases.
Bake mini cuppycakes for 10 – 15 minutes and the 2 larger cuppycakes for 15 – 20 minutes or until a toothpick inserted into the centre of a cuppycake comes out clean. (I like to bake the mini cuppycakes first and then the 2 larger ones.)
Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cuppycakes are cooling make the candied bacon by preheating the oven to 200C / 400F.
Line a baking tray with with baking paper.
Place the bacon rashers on the baking tray and sprinkle brown sugar evenly over each rasher. Depending on the length of the bacon, you may need more or less sugar.
Bake for 5 minutes then flip the bacon over and drag through the sugary liquid so both sides of the bacon are covered in sticky sugar.
Bake for another 5 minutes. Repeat until the bacon is dark brown.
Allow to cool on a wire rack before cutting into small pieces.

While the bacon is cooling, make the buttercream frosting by creaming together the butter and cream cheese in a medium sized bowl with an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar and beat until frosting reaches a piping consistency. Spoon frosting into a piping bag and pipe onto cuppycakes.
Decorate with candied bacon.

Come For The Snakes, Stay For The Pastry

At a romantic beachside restaurant in Fiji, my partner said the words I never thought I would hear, but so wanted to: 

“Vicky, don’t panic, but there is a snake behind you.” 

Shivering with excitement, I turned around. Three feet behind me was a stunning venomous sea snake. We slowly stood up and, with a brave few guests, followed and photographed the sea snake as it wound its way to the beach. We watched, mesmerised, as it slithered in and out of the rocky crevices. When it found the water we gasped as it picked up speed and swam away, making shimmering shapes in the water.

 

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We were in Fiji to celebrate the destination wedding of my lovely nephew to his equally lovely partner. Having a banded sea krait turn up for dinner was a real bonus for me. What I loved most about this snake was how slow and calm it was on land. It gave me a great opportunity to admire its luminescent bands and its sinuous body. In the water it transformed into a sea serpent, swiftly but gracefully swimming in “s” patterns as it disappeared into the ocean. It was quite a privilege to be so close to such a wild, exotic animal.

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In honour of this unexpected but much appreciated encounter I have created a recipe that combines my culinary Macedonian heritage with that of Morocco. M’hanncha, meaning snake, is a traditional Moroccan dessert made of almond paste filled rolls of filo pastry coiled to look like a snake. It is similar to Maznik, a traditional coiled Macedonian pastry. Maznik is usually filled with feta cheese but can contain many different fillings. A favourite of mine when I was young was a sweet apple and sultana filled one. I don’t have the recipe that my relatives used so I created my own version from memory. I don’t know what Maznik means so I’m calling my pastry M’hanncha as I know that means snake. As a wise playwright once said “a pastry by any other name would taste as sweet” – or something like that 🙂

M’hanncha

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Ingredients

for the filling
4 large granny smith apples, peeled cored and chopped
2 tablespoons orange juice
2 tablespoons water
1 + 1/2 tablespoons caster sugar
1/4 cup sultanas

for the pastry
50g unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled.
8 sheets of filo pastry, prepared according to the instructions on the packet
1/4 cup ground almonds

Method
Bring the apples, orange juice and water to a boil in a saucepan. Reduce heat to medium. Cover and cook for 15 minutes or until the apples have softened. Lightly mash the apples. Stir in the sugar and sultanas. Allow to cool.
Preheat the oven to 180C / 350F.
Lightly grease a 25cm round baking tray.
Work with one sheet of pastry at a time, keeping the remaining sheets covered with a damp tea towel.
Place one sheet of filo pastry on a board with the longest side facing you.
Lightly butter the pastry sheet.
Sprinkle with 1/8th of the almond meal.
Spread 1/8th of the apple mix along the bottom side of the pastry.
Loosely roll up the pastry into a long cigar shape.
Carefully roll into a coil shape and place in the centre of the prepared baking tray.
For each of the remaining sheets roll as above and continue the coil from where the previous sheet finished.
Brush with melted butter.
Bake for 25 – 35 minutes or until browned.

You need approximately 2 cups of apple sauce.
This is a rustic pastry so don’t worry if it cracks in sections.

Achoo! – Revisited

Just over a year ago I saw a movie about the famous sneezing baby panda that became a YouTube sensation. No one really knew the identities of the sneezing baby panda or the mother panda who nearly drops her cookie in shock, although there was much speculation and many guesses. The film “Sneezing Baby Panda: The Movie” suggests the mother panda is Mao Mao and the baby panda is Chi Chi. You can read my review of the movie here.

But now, thanks to the wonderful Pandas International, the real identity of the sneezing baby panda and startled mother have been revealed. Why was it so hard to find out who these pandas were? The main issue was that the video was released on YouTube in 2006 and the assumption was that the footage was from 2006. But the footage was actually from a documentary filmed in 1998. This has caused much confusion and incorrect assumptions about who the pandas are. After much consultation and research, Pandas International recently revealed that the mother panda is Xue Xue and the sneezing baby panda is Mei Xiang!

If you know anything about famous pandas you’ll know that Mei Xiang is big news. Mei Xiang lives at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington DC and is the mother of two very famous pandas; Tai Shan (Butterstick) and Bao Bao.IMG_7812a

Ironically, Tai Shan is one of the stars of “Sneezing Baby Panda: The Movie” and plays the role of the sneezing baby panda Chi Chi. As we now know, the sneezing baby panda is not Chi Chi but Mei Xiang, Tai Shan’s mother. So the lovely and talented Tai Shan actually played his mother in the movie 🙂

Baby sister Bao Bao is also a sensation in her own right. She has been a Smithsonian Cover Girl and was voted the Smithsonian’s Most Iconic Item. Both Bao Bao and her parents have had silver coins made in their honour.

Bao Bao is also famous for her incarnation as Princess Pinky in The Panda Chronicles by Anne Belov. Princess Pinky is currently running for President of the United States in 2016. You can follow her exploits at the Chronicles and also her reaction to finding out that the sneezing baby panda is actually her mother! You can read Part One here and Part Two here.

So sit back, grab the popcorn and indulge in some pandamonium! And what better way to enjoy popcorn than in a cuppycake. From the (coming soon) cookbook “The Panda Chronicles Cuppycake Cookbook: Favourite Recipes of the Panda Kindergarten” by Anne Belov and me, is this delicious Popcorn Cuppycake. The Panda Cam Cuppycake is dedicated to all the wonderful pandas who have made us laugh and cry at their onscreen panda play and especially to the sneezing baby panda Mei Xiang and her mother Xue Xue.

Panda Cam Cuppycakes
Popcorn studded cornmeal cuppycakes with butter and cream cheese frosting are the perfect food for watching panda antics.

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Ingredients
for the cornmeal cuppycakes
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup almond meal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 cup sugar
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup sunflower oil
2 eggs, lightly beaten

for the butter and cream cheese frosting
1 cup (8oz/225g) cream cheese, softened
1 cup (8oz/225g) unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons powdered (icing) sugar
freshly popped popping corn, cooled

Method
Preheat oven to 220C / 430F
Line a 12-hole muffin pan with 12 paper cases.
In a medium sized bowl, mix together the cornmeal, almond meal, baking powder, salt and sugar.
In a small bowl mix together the buttermilk, oil and eggs.
Add milk mixture to cornmeal mixture and stir until just combined.
Using an ice-cream scoop, spoon the batter evenly into the 12 paper cases.
Bake for 10 – 25 minutes or until a skewer comes out clean when inserted into the centre. Allow to cool for 5 minutes before transferring to a wire rack to cool completely.

While the cuppycakes are cooling, make the cream cheese frosting by creaming together the butter and cream cheese in a medium sized bowl with an electric mixer. Gradually beat in the powdered sugar and beat until frosting reaches a piping consistency. Spoon frosting into a piping bag and pipe onto cuppycakes.
Decorate with popped corn.