Monday, January 31, 2011

Blancmange - A Recipe for the Cookbook of Ada de la Harpe

Is there any more needless a dish than blancmange? At least in the form at which it is the British, and hence, Sri Lankan Burgher, repertoire? Okay, when I was a kid, blancmange was a very useful dessert when I had my tonsils out and the thought of putting anything down my throat was equivalent to asking me to swallow razor blades. I have the distinct memory, in fact, of whimpering for some time in the hospital hours after the operation because the nursing staff had tried to make me eat some boiled rice, and it was thus my mother found me and rounded on the staff and called for some jelly instead.

And yet, I made a blancmange from Ada's recipe the other night and re-discovered it's silky, wobbly, soothing, texture and subtle flavour which makes it perfect to pour fresh passionfruit over and serve up after a curry feast. I went a bit further and added sliced banana and some blueberries, but they were on reflection redundant and only used in case a guest had had the common negative experience of blancmange as a child and wanted to have more than a dribble of passionfruit for dessert.

But like many a blanded-out dish, the history of the blancmange is anything but. Here's what I gleaned about it from The Oxford Companion to Food, edited by the late lamented Alan Davidson.

It's name is an Anglicisation of the French blanc manger, meaning white food, but there it is made with almond milk and gelatin and not milk and cornflour as below. More intriguingly, 'the 14th and 15th century English blancmangers', says Davidson, 'were made of shredded chicken breast, sugar, rice and either ground almonds or almond milk'. The path from this meal of a savoury dish to the trembling milk white moulded dessert of today would be fascinating to trace. It's former incarnation is thought to have derived from the Middle East where it was not uncommon to have a sweet dish based on chicken breast, where, says Davidson, 'chicken was sometimes literally candied'. But the trail of the dish is as cold as a blancmange it would seem so speculation is all that we have.

There is a lovely explanation of how to make 'modern' French blanc-manger here -  - which begins with making almond milk, and suggests you need to add cream and hence milk fats to give the blanc manger 'that lush velvety edge'. There's another recipe on this site - - which also has a lovely blog comment from someone who tried to make it according to the recipe and had a Julie/Julia experience.

Ada's version (in all these blog posts I will give you Ada's recipe as she wrote it, and then my updated version)
1 1/4 oz Brown and Polsons Cornflour, 1 pint milk, 1 oz sugar, pinch of salt, nut of butter.

Mix the cornflour with a of the cold milk - Put the rest to heat with sugar, butter & salt. Add the mixed cornflour, stir till boiling, and boil for 3 minutes. Pour into a wetted mould, or individually molds to set. If any flavouring essence is liked add 1/2 tea spoonful after boiling.

Ada then also gives a recipe for Sweet sauces which is a sort of custard.

Make as for blancmange, but use 2 1/2 level tea-spoons of cornflour, 1/2 pint milk, 1/2 oz sugar & a small nut butter. Serve with baked or steamed puddings or pour over stewed fruit.

So here's my updated version of Ada's recipe
35g cornflour
30g  sugar
500ml milk
pinch salt
1tsp butter

Mix the cornflour with a of the cold milk. 

Put the rest of the milk, sugar, butter & salt into a saucepan over a low heat. 

Add the mixed cornflour, stir till boiling. What should happen is that the mixture should thicken. You keep stirring so it doesn't stick. It's boiling when bubbles start popping in the mixture. 

Once the bubbles start, keep stirring for 2 - 3 minutes till the mixture coats the back of a spoon.

Take the mixture off the heat.

If you want to add in flavour, do it now. A 1/2 teaspoonful of vanilla is a good addition.

Pour into a jelly or other mould that has been rinsed and left a little damp.

Let it set in the fridge.

When you are ready to serve it, unmould onto a plate and either pour a fruit sauce over it (I'd avoid any custardy or milk based sauce - it jsut seems like overkill) or fresh fruit, going for something acidic or tartish.

This quantity is enough for 2 people. I make two lots up to fill up the jelly mould I have. 

It would be interesting to add in some berries or other fruit to the mixture before you pour it into the mould. You can also add colouring to the mixture, though, as Alan Davidson point out, it's a bit weird to ask for some of the red blancmange.

If I get brave enough, I will make a French almond blancmange and post the results.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Garden Post 4#

An update for those of you following on what's coming up in the garden and what's going down the gullet as a result.

The cherry tomatoes are at the lovely stage of giving us a small handful of cheery red and orange bliss bombs a day and they are being popped straight into my mouth, mostly, refreshing on these humid Sydney summer days. When not being dealt with thus, they are halved and tossed into salads of weed and brassica greens, or as today they may be added to a dhal to have as a simple satisfying dinner meal with either roti or sourdough depending on what's on hand, or they may end up on the next lot of pizzas I make, the last ones having been quite successful and there being some dough left over that I have frozen for the coming week.

The yellow passionfruit are giving us a windfall, literally as most of the fruit is quite high on the vine where it has travelled up to the top of the paperbark, so it really is what the wind knocks down that we are collecting. There's plenty of fruit and we get a dozen or so drop a day. They aren't very big, just right for a scoop or two drizzled onto some home made icecream, and drizzled into the cream mix as well. I am not being wildly successful with the ice cream maker I got, there is something fundamentally wrong in the transition from the mixing bowl to freezing that is making for more crystalline ice cream than is ideal, and adding juice like that from the passionfruit makes it more likely to move to the crystalline end. Not all of it, though, I am still pleased to be downing a spoonful or two for dessert or a light-night-just-back-from-the-theatre treat.

The various brassica are still delivering and I am looking forward to a salad or two, including taking some on a picnic bush walk I have planned for tomorrow. My dear friend Maria Kelly gave me some seeds for a green called perilla, which is also called shisho and beefsteak plant, which is of the mint family which she reckons isn't supposed to be planted till next summer, but which I planted anyway and which have decided to strike an independent stance and are pushing ahead with rapid growth so I should be enjoying their minty flavour within the week.

The karawilla/bittergourd continues to traverse the top of the fence and has now made it's way into the mandarin tree but is studiously ignoring my pleas for a fruiting but I continue to have hopes for it.

Purslane continues to pop up and I will be tossing some in the dhal tonight. The aubergine plants are putting out promising signs of flowers.

Charly across the road gave us some of his figs, which were small but juicy, and his persimmon tree is heavily fruiting and he has given me the go ahead to grab some whenever they get ripe. His chili bush is going gangbusters and I will be nipping across for a few for a meal I am cooking for a friend visiting from Hong Kong who likes her chili.

Best of all, the cherry guava in the house on the corner has well and truly recovered from being brutalised when they were renovating last year and is covered in fruit that is just at the right height for fence picking and my own guava, the bigger pink variety, is showing signs of a health crop too.

Oh, and I finally got around to making some hibiscus tea the other day. It's simple - grab a handful of red hibiscus flowers, remove the sepals (the green bit that's like a cup and out of which the petal comes), toss the flowers into a saucepan with water enough for the flowers to be floating easily, bring to the boil and keep boiling till the colour had drained out of the flowers and they are a bruised purple or deep cornflower blue in colour. Strain this and to a litre of the tea add two or three teaspoons of honey. Bottle it and store in the fridge for a delicious cooling alternative to fizzy sweetened drinks. You can if you like squeeze a little lime or lemon juice in when you serve it up.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Let Them Eat Cake

'When two tapas restaurants opened in my neighbourhood in quick succession, attracting a funky crowd prepared to pay big prices for tiny morsels, the gentrification was complete. The buzz in the street was palpable. Now as I watch the gutting of a '60s-era Chinese restaurant to make way for new tenants, I'm ashamed of the secret joy in my middle-class heart. Perhaps the neighbourhood will get a delicatessen that sells good bread.' Adele Horin 'Social housing not code for estate' The Sydney Morning Herald Weekend Edition January 22- 23 2011, News Review p18

Red rag to a bull, statements like this, the last sentence in particular.

I'm not going to point out that Adele Horin seems to have left herself out of the 'gentrification' process, which is pretty typical of those who cry gentrification, meaning, some other middle-class heart has moved into my lovely working class niche and now it's not exclusive anymore.

No, what gets me is the linking of getting 'a delicatessen that sells good bread' with 'gentrification'. What does she mean? That the working class might not get 'secret joy' out of a deli or a good bakery come to that? Does she mean that either a deli or good bread is an automatic signifier of gentrification?

There's also an assumption that 'a funky crowd prepared to pay big prices for tiny morsels' will always be middle class and again that the mere presence of such means the suburb is going to hell in a hand cart. Maybe, just maybe, some working class young uns are also funky and happy to pay a higher price on occasion for 'tiny morsels'.

Sounding pretty classist to me.

Brillat-Savarin's aphorism Tell me what you eat; and I will tell you what you are is getting pretty creaky these days. I say this having just come back from a weekend in what had traditionally been a working class to lower middle class beach holiday area in NSW, Great Lakes/Forster-Tuncurry. While there's plenty of caravaning and cut-rate motels still doing a roaring trade, there's also a burgeoning upper middle to really really rich  population buying up big and building even bigger beach houses for permanent or holiday stay, centered on the Bluey's Beach area. The little strip of shops at Bluey's now boasts a very inner-city/Northern beaches cafe cum mini provedore, a bottle shop with an extraordinary range of beers and 'gourmet' dips, snacks, etc., a pizzeria that's funky and swanky, but also a very traditional fish and chip shop. The clientele across all theses shops cuts across class, and I bet no-one from the longer established holiday maker set is complaining about the up-scaled burgers, wraps, smoothies and coffee (gees, it's even Organic!). No, I reckon they are all secretly joyful that where the moneyed mob goes the food is likely to also. It's sure as eggs that while they - the un or less-moneyed  - were the only ones coming holidaying it would not have been profitable for the gourmet foodmakers to move in.

So, next time you see someone wanting to set up a deli in your little piece of working class heaven, don't grope about it, look at it as a step towards the democratisation of good food.

Of Floods and Food Bowls

This post is occasioned by the last couple of weeks of discussion of the impact of the floods  in Queensland, Australia on the supplying of fruit and vegetables to at least the Eastern States of the country if not, as most commentators imply, all of Australia.

The hyperbole of the descriptions of the flood - 'biblical' (what, 40 days of torrent and the whole world drowned?), 'epic' (what, something out of Cecil B de Mille?) is now sloppily being used to create a food supply and price crisis that a closer reading of the stories gives the lie to, or at least calls into question.

What do I mean by this? First the disclaimer - these are not the thoughts of an economist nor food producer nor agronomist, so I am open to being told to go eat hay (or something even less palatable). But here goes...

On, January 24th, two weeks plus post the ceasing of the rain and the water began receding, the front page lead headline in the Sydney Morning Herald (herein affectionately known as the SMH)  was 'Floods empty the food bowl', bylined to Kirsty Needham.  Two main points are highlighted above the headline - 'Supermarkets stock damaged produce', and 'Swan [the Australian Government's Treasurer} warns of price rises'. Now, if I was a sloppy reader, or indeed an average reader trying not to upset my morning coffee as I tried to turn the pages of the broadsheet format of the Herald or to upset my fellow passengers in the train or bus by poking them with my elbows as I attempted the same, I might get no further and might already be planning how to raid my local Harris Farm Market outlet or that uber-deli that's just opened a healthy walk away.

The first two paragraphs of the article, the ones that the sub-editor will want to make sure carry the main points of the story so no-one needs to read further to get the message the paper wants to put out, are as follows:

'Big supermarkets are contemplating the mass import of fruit and vegetables - and are already stocking shelves with damaged produce from local growers desperate for cash after the floods.

In what looms as a dilemma, Coles and Woolworths (hereunder dubbed the Big 2) are weighing up whether to support Australian producers  -and sell their water-damaged crops - or favour imports and keep prices down.'

Okay, so what the journo really means by 'Big supermarkets' is just the biggest two that control somewhere near half of the fresh produce market nationally, and who have every reason to fan the flames of a food crisis. They are also of course the ones that create and support the kind of regional mono-cropping that inevitably causes economic hardship for the farmers when a disaster such as a flood destroys a potential harvest or postpones planting. Now what's immediately interesting to me is that we have heard/read nothing from the likes of Harris Farm Market, IGA, or Aldi, all of whom are locked in competition with the Big 2, and I for one have to ask why.

This is where my residual pinko conspiracy meter starts ticking. It turns out that food prices were rising even before the floods, as Peter Martin, also writing in the SMH, notes ('Food prices were soaring even before the floods', SMH, January 26, p2). Fruit prices had risen 15% and vegetable prices 11%  in the last quarter of 2010. The article goes on to quote Michael Blythe, an economist with the Commonwealth Bank, on the reasons for this.

Firstly, 'Rapid income growth in emerging economies is lifting the demand for food. Economic history shows that the largest increase in food consumption typically occurs as income levels rise from low levels. Most of any rise in income goes on food, either more of it or better quality'. Now this fits with articles I've been reading over the past weeks about the rising food costs in India and China, and the shift in consumption patterns there two. In both cases, it is the increasing wealthy middle class that is pushing up prices and is shifting food consumption to a more Western pattern, typically a more expensive one.

Secondly, 'The other driver is the expansion of biofuels which will absorb more agricultural production over time.' This also fits with what I have been reading hidden away in the World News pages in little paragraphs here and there.

And here's an interesting figure that you won't read in the oh-woe-will-be-the-impact-of-flood-on-food-prices, again from Blythe. 'The Food and Agriculture Organisation believes global food prices have climbed 46% over the past four years. Australia is not immune.'

Now, this all makes me feel like what we are being subjected to by the Big 2, and what is being unwittingly (I hope) supported by Government is a smokescreen for the inevitable on-going rise in the price of fruit and vegetables because of these much larger shifts in production, distribution and demand that are the result of years of bad public policy in support of bad private policy that show no signs of being halted. It's easier to blame catastrophic events than to blame catastrophic human errors.

So let's drill a tad deeper.  What exactly is the impact of the flooding - on what produce, how long would it take to recover etc etc? The way the stories have been reading, and the way the Big 2 talk up the situation, it wouldn't be out of order for the likes of the average home buyer to think that what we are facing is something akin to a famine, with basic food items, the cereals on which most of the human world ultimately depends for survival, have been wiped out, and the simplest of go withs, a little carbo from some root vegetable, a little green stuff from something brassica, had also gone the way of the dodo. But what exactly are we to expect shortages in from this so-critical foodbowl that was turned into something more like a fishbowl and is now probably more like what's left in the fishbowl when you've been on hols and forgotten to get someone to top up the water.

In the article cited above, Martin identifies what fruit and vegetables will be affected: '60 per cent of Australia's beetroot is produced in flood affected areas, as well as 60 per cent of sweet potatoes and zucchini, madarines and spring onions'. Oh, and Queensland bananas.

Now, I don't know about you, but this does not look like a list of necessities for survival the large scale destruction of which could certainly lead to producers thereof hiking prices of what remains - nothing like a flood or famine for cashing in if you are lucky enough not to have been flooded or famined. Seriously, I'm not seeing in this list anything that most of us would be able to do without until such time as the Queensland farmers were able to re-plant and re-harvest. Mind you, there's still someone out there producing the other 40 per cent of these crops should I really be desperate for them, and if I am then I am happy to say I ought to be happy to afford whatever price they charge to feed my cravings.

The limited scope of what's being bewailed may be one reason why Colin Gray, the chief executive of the NSW Chamber of Fruit and Vegetable Industries, and a director at the Sydney Markets, is quoted in the SMH on 26th January a saying that there is no significant shortage of fruit and vegetables, that it is unlikely that there will be a need to import anything, and that shoppers ought to ignore reports about shortages and huge price rises ('Ugliness is in the eye of the fruit buyer' Amy McNeilage, SMH, January 26, 2011).

I've just come back from a visit to the mid-North coast of New South Wales, the Great Lakes area of Forster/Tuncurry. One of my better meals there was at a cafe/restaurant that is delivering haute monde food. When going through the menu with me, one of the co-owners pointed out that some dishes could not be served as described in the menu because of the Queensland floods. These dishes were ones that were described as having kipfler potatoes, baby spinach or peaches. She was apologetic that for the night they would have to substitute plain old potato potatoes, rocket and nectarines. Did it make a difference to the dish. Perhaps to the chef who created it. To me, the diner, the integrity of the dish didn't seem to have been compromised in any of the cases. 

Now, they could have chosen to be purist and sought out these ingredients, perhaps paid a motzah for them, and passed on the cost for that night on to me the diner.  That they didn't shows the kind of good sense I think most of us would show faced with a shortage of some particular fruit or vegetable - we would substitute or go with out.

I will not be dragooned into supporting artificially inflated prices across the board as a result of supply problems for produce that I can perfectly well live without, short or long term. I will not collude with profiteering, and from what I can see that's what the Big 2 are building an argument for. I will continue to argue for food policies that work toward food justice and security. I urge you to do the same.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Fish Kedgeree - A Recipe from the Cookbook of Ada de la Harpe

Poor old khichuri/khichiri/khichdi, whatever did the Raj do to you! Yes, the origins of the British dish kedgeree are this simple mix of rice and dhal cooked together with spices that Bengali women made with the coming of the monsoon. The consistency of it depended on the dhal that was used, says Chitrita Banerji in her  delightful Bengali Cooking Seasons and Festivals,  'thin, thick or dry and fluffy like a pilaf, plain or with seasonal winter vegetables like new potatoes, green peas and cauliflower'. But no matter what the consistency 'each grain of rice and dhal has to be fully cooked but not soft enough to lose its identity'. Banerji gives a recipe for a 'simple khichuri' which involves garam masala, cardamom, cumin, cinnamon, ginger, green chilies, turmeric, and the distinctive flavour of mustard oil.

By the time the dish had settled in England and Mrs Beeton got her hands on it it bore no resemblance whatsoever to its progenitor and had been relegated from something special to Rechauffes, dishes for using up left-overs, and it is Mrs B's version that Ada used with a few characteristically Sri Lankan variations.

Ada's version (in all these blog posts I will give you Ada's recipe as she wrote it, and then my updated version)
Cold salmon [my mother at some later time has noted it should be 1 tin]. 1 tea-spoonful chopped parsley. 1 tea-spoonful chopped red onions. 1 dessert-spoonful butter. 2 hard-boiled eggs. boiled rice (about a tea-cupful), the juice of 1 lime. salt, pepper, cayenne to taste.

Remove the bone and skin from the fish. Take the boiled rice and place it in a saucepan with the butter. Add pepper, salt, onions, lime juice, and cayenne and stir well over the fire. When quite warm, turn out into a dish: mix in the fish, and the slices of hard boiled eggs. Fill into a well-buttered mould and press it in well. Place a cover with a weight on it. Stand the mould in boiling water for 1/2 an hour before serving. Should turn out like a blancmange on to a flat dish.

Here on the other hand is Mrs B's.
1 lb cold fish (smoked haddock is generally preferred). 1/4 lb rice. 2 hard-boiled eggs. 2 oz butter. salt and pepper. cayenne pepper.

Boil and dry the rice. Divide the fish into small flakes. Cut the whites of the eggs into slices and sieve the yolks. Melt the butter in a saucepan, add to it the fish, rice, egg whites, salt, pepper and cayenne and stir until hot. Turn the mixture onto a hot dish. Press into the shape of a pyramid with a fork, decorate with egg yolk and serve as hot as possible.

I like that Ada has added in the red onions and lime juice and making more of a steamed pudding out of the dish.

So here's my updated version of Ada's recipe
250g fresh filleted salmon with the skin on
2 bay leaves
5 or 6 peppercorns
1 cup boiled rice
2 tsp chopped onion or shallots
2 tsp chopped parsley
1 dstp butter
2 hard boiled eggs, sliced
juice of 1 lime
1/2 tsp chili powder
red wine vinegar
lettuce leaves
cherry tomatoes

Poach the salmon in a shallow frypan in water with a dash of vinegar, the peppercorns and the bay leaves. You want the fish to be cooked through but still firm. When poached, take it out of the frypan, remove the skin, flake the salmon and remove any remaining bones.

Heat the butter in frypan and when just bubbling, add in 1 tsp of chopped onions, the lime juice and the chili powder and stir for a minute or two.

In a bowl, combine the fish, boiled rice, 1 tsp of chopped parsley, the buttery spiced sauce, and the remaining tsp of chopped onion ( I like this because it adds a touch of pungency). Add a little salt and pepper. Check the seasoning and if you want to add more lime juice or salt.

Butter a souffle dish (or other shallowish dish) big enough to take the mix that you have. Put in half the mix. Lay the sliced eggs on top. Cover with the rest of the rice and fish mixture. Press this down firmly. If you have something to put over all of this to weigh it down further, do so.

Boil water in a pan into which the souffle dish will easily fit. The water should come up to about 2/3 of the way up the side of the souffle dish. Leave on the fire at a gently rolling boil for 1/2 hour.

Turn out the kedgeree onto a plate. Now at this stage, you can eat it hot or let it get cold and have it as a salad. Either way, when it comes to serving. Put some fresh lettuce leaves around the moulded dish. Toss the remaining 1 tsp of chopped parsley over the dish. Decorate to your delight with cherry tomatoes on the top or on the lettuce leaves. Sprinkle all with a dash of red wine vinegar.

Here's a  picture a-la-Mrs B of my version.  I like to think that it's half way back down the track to making this bastard child special.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011


“The rich must stop consuming so much”, says HervĂ© Guyomard of the French agricultural and development research agency INRA. This is one of three conditions for being able to feed the 9 billion people projected to be living on poor little Earth by 2050 while also protecting the environment.

I gleaned this from a small item in New Scientist (NS) for 15 January 2011, p 6. INRA and  CIRAD (another research agency), have for the past 5 years undertaken a modeling exercise looking at how a goal of 3000 calories per day for everyone in the world, including 500 calories form animal sources, could be achieved with and without environmental limits on farming. Overall, the study found it would be possible to achieve the calorie goal and environmental protection as well.

The study found three main conditions for achieving this, and again I quote from NS:
1. Some regions of the world will depend even more on imports, which means that there needs to be a global solution to counter ‘excessive fluctuations in world prices so that imports are not hindered’.
2. “The rich must stop consuming so much”, in the words of HervĂ© Guyomard of INRA. Guyomard pointed out that food amounting to 800 calories per person is lost each day was waste in richer nations, nearly a third, in other words, of the daily total calorie intake they were looking at.
3. Realistic yield increases could feed everyone even when measures are taken to protect the environment, but we will need to tailor detailed solutions for different regions.’

To achieve these, food scientists, says Guyomard, will have to organize globally, as climate scientists are doing.

I’ve tracked down the report - Agrimonde. Scenarios and Challenges for Feeding the World in 2050 – which is available from CIRAD in an English translation, and will have more to say once I’ve devoured it.

Right now, though, I wanted to talk about personal food wastage, to do a sort of mea culpa for my part as a person in a rich country of wasting 800 calories per day.

Let me start by saying that I do what I can already to cut down on the likelihood that I will waste food. I make a point of looking at what’s actually in the fridge or kitchen cupboards before deciding on what to have for dinner and try and plan and shop accordingly. I no longer throw away the leafy green tops of root vegetables like beetroot, turnips or parsnips, turning them into mallungs (Sri Lankan dishes of chopped greens with onion, turmeric, mustard seed), or tossing them in with dhal or into stews and casseroles. I have a bag in the fridge into which lime and lemon halves go once squeezed, and when I have enough I take them out, put them on a tray, sprinkle salt over, leave to dry out and brown in the sun, then pack them into a jar with vinegar and chilies and let them slowly pickle. I bought a seriously big, highly efficient compost bin which already gives a regular supply of highly concentrated black nutrient rich liquid fertilizer, and which will come next spring provide superb material to reinvigorate the vegie beds. Guests at meals now know they can expect me to bring out the plastic takeaway containers, also hoarded, in the hope that they have liked the meal enough to help with the leftovers. And there’s savings to be made on pet food, and much appreciation to be received also, when what can’t be managed by me, Marilyn, or our are guests is mixed in with the poochies’s  roo mince and chicken bones.

But I’ve been spending time over the last weeks going through the aforementioned cupboards and my two freezers and having a good look at what’s been hoarded in there from gifts kind hearted relatives and friends have given me, or that I have collected during one of my food fads, or that I have just plain over-purchased, and which I have failed to be enthused by when it comes to planning the next meal.

Like the 8 different kinds of flours I’ve managed to collect, or the 8 kinds of beans, or 5 types of rice, or the specialty grains (couscous, burghul, polenta etc.) – more carbohydrate than a proto diabetic like me should have having around. Or the packets of home butchered veal, calf and pig that I’ve stored in the freezer in the garage, layered like an archaeological dig in some frozen wasteland. Or the jams, pickles, spreads, sauces that inevitably come the way of the foodie with a reputation for liking either the exotic or the home-made, or indeed have been purchased on a whim that should have been whammed at the time.

It’s startling how much there is that has hung around for years not being used. So, my New Year resolution is to work my way through what of it I can. If that means some enterprising weevils or winged widgets are made homeless or made into meal, or that I have to dip daily into the Country Women’s Association cookbooks for sponge and tart tidbits, or that the pizza oven and barbecue have to be stoked 24/7, or if it means I have to investigate ever more arcane areas of cuisines for which once I provisioned myself, so be it.

I'll keep you posted on how I go.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Backyard Grazing Recipes - Purslane

In Sydney for the last month, and for the coming month or two, if you have a backyard, you are almost sure to have wild purslane coming up. (See image). Most of us treat it as a weed, but you can treat it as a vegetable and there are good reasons for doing so.

Purslane is and annual succulent of the Portulacaceae family, Portulaca oleracea. It's commonly called pigweed, or hogweed, or, more fanciliy, verdolaga. It has a very wide distribution across North Africa, the Middle East, South and South East Asia and Australasia.
All parts of it are edible - stems. leaves, flowers. It has a slight soury saltiness which makes it perfect for salads, stir-frys, soups and stews. Aboriginal Australians made flat cakes from the ground seeds.

But why eat it? Well, here's what Wikipedia has to say about it. Purslane contains more omega-3 fatty acids (alpha-linolenic acid in particular, than any other leafy vegetable plant. Simopoulos states that Purslane has 0.01 mg/g of eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA). This is an extraordinary amount of EPA for land based vegetable sources. EPA is an Omega-3 fatty acid normally found mostly in fish, some algae and flax seeds. It also contains vitamins (mainly vitamin A, vitamin C, and some vitamin B and carotenoids), as well as dietary minerals, such as magnesium, calcium, potassium and iron. Also present are two types of betalain alkaloid pigments, the reddish betacyanins (visible in the coloration of the stems) and the yellow betaxanthins (noticeable in the flowers and in the slight yellowish cast of the leaves). Both of these pigment types are potent antioxidants and have been found to have antimutagenic properties in laboratory studies.When stressed by low availability of water, purslane, which has evolved in hot and dry environments, switches to photosynthesis using Crassulacean acid metabolism (the CAM pathway): at night its leaves trap carbon dioxide, which is converted into malic acid (the souring principle of apples), and in the day, the malic acid is converted into glucose. When harvested in the early morning, the leaves have 10 times the malic acid content as when harvested in the late afternoon, and thus have a significantly more tangy taste.

So there! Feel like you have been missing out on something, dontcha! I've been having a great time creating recipes with it and here's what I've come up with so far.

Scrambled Eggs and Backyard Greens

1 bunch dandelion leaves
1 good handful of the tips and tender leaves of purslane
4 eggs
a few cherry tomatoes left whole
olive oil
salt and pepper
grated manchego cheese (or any mildly sharp cheese - parmesan would work well)

Wash the dandelion and purslane leaves to remove any grit, aeroplane fuel, dog wee, grit, twigs etc. Spin them dry in a salad spinner or leave them to drain well. When dry, chop the dandelion leaves roughly.

Beat the eggs and set aside.

Heat the olive oil, add the dandelion leaves and purslane and saute for a minute or two till the dandelion leaves have wilted and coloured a little.

Add the tomatoes and keep sauteing till they soften.

Pour in the beaten eggs, add salt and pepper (I used a herb and chili salt for added zing). Leave for a minute, then start mixing the eggs, leaves and tomatoes as the egg sets.

When the egg is still just wet, take the pan off the fire and stir in the grated cheese.

It's ready to serve up.

Purslane Mallung
Mallungs are Sri Lankan dishes of shredded greens boiled or fried up with a light mix of spices and ground coconut. They are an accompaniment to a rice and curry meal, or can be eaten on their own with rice, and they make great sandwiches too. You can eat them hot or cold.

250g purslane chopped fine (take the tender stems and leaves only, the thicker red stems of the plant are too woody)
1 tbsp onion or shallot chopped fine
1 dry red chili chopped fine
1 sprig curry leaves chopped fine
a little water
1/2 tsp black mustard seed freshly ground
1/4 tsp turmeric powder
pinch of salt
2 tbsp grated coconut (you can buy this in frozen packets from which you can break off as much as you need - DO NOT use dessicated coconut)

If using frozen coconut, make sure you have defrosted it before you begin the next steps.

Wash the purslane well before chopping it. You want it really well chopped so you may like to use the chopping blade in an electric mixer or a mezzaluna if you don't fancy using a standard cook's knife.

Put the chopped purslane, chili, curry leaves and a little water into a saucepan. You really just want enough water to prevent the purslane leaves from burning when you first put them on the stove. Put a lid on the saucepan and turn the flame low and/or use a diffusion mat so the purslane steams.

After a 4 - 5 minutes, take the lid off the pan and let the steam escape as the purslane cooks down.

Add the ground mustard, salt and turmeric and stir through. Leave for 2 - 3 minutes.

Add the grated coconut and mix through.

Check how much moisture there is in the pan. You want to try and get this dish as dry-wet as you can, that is, you don't want it to burn or desiccate, but you don't want there to be a lot of juice either.

Purslane Sambol
150g purslane chopped fine
1 green chili chopped fine
1 tbsp onion or shallot chopped fine
1 tsp powderd maldive fish (you can leave this out, but you are doing yourself and the dish a dis-service - prawn powder is a good substitute but not blachan)
1/2 lime juiced
pinch of salt
2 tbsp grated coconut (you can buy this in frozen packets from which you can break off as much as you need - DO NOT use dessicated coconut)

If using frozen coconut, make sure you have defrosted it before you begin the next steps.

Mix together all the ingredients - how simple is that!

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Weel of Tastes Update

An update from Kay Richardson. As of last December 2010, the Children's Food Education Foundation CFEF) and Helen Campbell have joined forces to run and fund Week of Taste (WOT - acronyms are sooooo txtalicious) and to take it national. CFEC has set up a Week of Taste fund with a link to a Week of Taste website (gosh, things move fast when you get smart gals behind them!). For just $25 you can support this excellent adventure. There is some video of Sydney chefs Alex Herbert, Michael Klaus, Matt Kemp & Simon Thomsen supporting the Week

And Kay's other site - Young Gourmet - (she and I are competing to see who can have the most) there is a series of post she has done one ingredients etc that appeared in Junior Master Chef. Get surfin' and turfin' say I.

Kids and Food

I didn't watch Junior Master Chef on principle.  That principle being that I think getting kids to think about making food as a time-dependent competitive activity is the worst way to get kids to engage with food. I know, I know, I have friends who tell me of kids they know who have taken a sudden interest in food after watching the show. I'd like to know how long the enthusiasm lasted - past the first stuffed up attempt at quenelles?

If course I think kids should learn to cook, but like other learning I think it has to come over time, with a thorough engagement in the process of learning, including a high degree of self-direction. That's certainly how I learned to appreciate the process of provisioning from the thinking of what to cook, through buying the ingredients, cooking it, serving it up and eating it; to appreciate the thoughtfulness that makes for a satisfying meal, one that does more than looking good on a plate. It's about the time it should take to be thoughtful at all stages, including reflecting post consumption, and the time it should take to embedding the learning from this.

Let me tell you about two women and the programs they run that I think are way more effective than Junior Master Chef will ever be in embedding good foodways in kids.

Kay Richardson has for a number of years now run the Children's Food Education Foundation. I won't go so much into what Kay does cause you can read all about it on her site. Briefly, though, the purposes of the Foundation are:
  • Promoting an understanding of food, health, nutrition and healthy food choices by children and young people in order to prevent and/or control childhood obesity and/or the diseases medically linked or associated with childhood obesity including, but not limited to Type 2 Diabetes, Asthma, Coronary Heart Disease and Depression.
  • Facilitating, coordinating and supporting the development and dissemination of information for the education of children and young people in relation to food, health, nutrition and healthy food choices;
  • Developing resources for use by children and young people who may be impoverished, sick or disadvantaged, or for use by schools or other relevant persons or institutions who can deliver food education initiatives which promote an understanding of food, health, nutrition and healthy food choices
  • Monitoring, evaluating and disseminating research knowledge in an accessible form so that it can be better used by policy makers, practitioners and educators.
 Kay is now also doing work with food security and you can find out about that at The Big Feed.

The other person I wanted to talk about is Helen Campbell who has single-handedly begun running Semain de Gout - the Week of Taste in Australia. SDG began in France and engages schools, communities, food producers, chefs in a one week program each year where kids learn about foodways through coming to understand taste. They may go on visits to producers and manufacturers, chefs come into the classroom and cook with them or demonstrate dishes which are then avidly consumed and there is a simple curriculum that teachers can run over the week. Helen has organised it in the last two years in October in Sydney to overlap with the other food and wine events that happen in New South Wales at the time. The number of schools she has involved, and the number of chefs, is growing. What's particularly great about the latter area is that chefs who have kids at a local school, or who have cafes and restaurants in the local area are encouraged to get involved in the local school, which builds a fantastic relationship with the kids then, who can go off with their parents to the cafe, restaurant whatever and have a meal, talk with the chef, show of their knowledge etc.

Helen hasn't set up a website yet, but if you read French you can check out a number of sites about the French Semain de Gout.

I wanted to mention the work of these two women because I think what they are doing is so much more long term effective in embedding good food practices in kids.  Yes, I know, Stephanie Alexander is also doing fantastic work with her school gardens projects. But I wanted to give the big thumbs up to these two women who don't get the kind of publicity and support that Stephanie does. Please, have a look at Kay's site and consider what you can offer in support. And if you want to contact Helen, then I can give you her email. You can email me at

But hey, you can get your kids or kids you know learning about foodways too, if you don't already.In earlier posts I talked a little about my early childhood experiences with watching food being made in the kitchens of my grandmother, mother and father. I think learning starts here.  If kids are off somewhere in front of a screen while the home meals are being prepared, it's no wonder they don't understand how a meal is produced.

Actually the learning starts before this. When I was growing up in Singleton, I had a friend called Patrick Murphy and I used to sometimes go over to his place on a Saturday morning and stay till after dinner. When I did, Patrick and I (both aged 10 at the time) would start our morning together in doing the weeks shopping for his family. His mum would give us a list, and off we would go the grocer, butcher, fruiterer hauling one of those oblong-vinyl-on-wheels shopping carts of the '60s (I loved the variety of patterning on the vinyl and have fond memories of one that was all orange daisy like flowers), just about the right money in our pocket (always a little over for us to buy an ice cream or some sweets). When we got back to Patrick's home, we helped his mum unpack and stow away our purchases, then we went off to play till it was time to start preparing lunch or dinner at which time we would be volunteered to peel the potatoes or wash the lettuce or some such. This gave me a fantastic grounding in the production of a meal. Patrick's (it was never Pat) would have read the local paper the week before and know what the specials were and we would be given quite explicit instructions about this too, and so I learned about household economy as well  - Patrick's family was large and working class and the shillings and pence (we were a few years short of going decimal) mattered.

Recently, when I was asked to develop a program for early childhood literacy, one of the suggested techniques I came across, and used, for developing language skills, not just written literacy, but aural literacy as well, was to get parents to engage their child from their earliest years, before they can articulate words even, in drawing up a shopping list, including food items, and then to take the child shopping and to verbalise to/with the child as items were bought and show them being crossed off the list. Patrick's mum wasn't of course consciously teaching us language, we were pretty advanced in it by then, but you can see how linking the hearing and seeing of a word for an item, then the purchase of it, and then seeing/tasting how it is used would deepen understanding of language and its relationship to the real world. As importantly, you begin from the earliest age immersing the child in foodways that they are going to have to use independently at some stage in their lives.

I bought my 9 year old son, Arlo, his first cookbook last Christmas, one with Italian recipes that are easy for kids to make with a little supervision. He doesn't live with me, but his mum and he have made dishes from the book and he has been very receptive to this. This year he got a dog for his birthday, and for Christmas I gave him a book of recipes for making doggie treats and snacks. Earlier this week he came over for the day and I asked him to bring his doggie cookbook with him. We read the recipes together and selected two that looked easy enough to begin on, went shopping for the ingredients, made the treats together, and then had the pleasure of feeding his dog and my three on food they clearly enjoyed and that we had made, not bought. I have no doubt he will continue to make these and other dishes for the dog and for himself and his mum.

My eldest daughter, Mary, 20 something, has been trying her hand at curries and reckons they just aren't turning out right. Now, I could just give her some of my reasonably fool proof recipes, but it occurs to me it would be much more fun and involving and skills-transferring to have her come over one afternoon/night and together we will make a meal. Sounds obvious, really. That's how I learned to make a Sri Lankan Christmas Cake from my gran and mum. That's how I learned to make curries, watching my father and asking questions.

So, over to you, I'd love to hear from anyone about how they help their kids learn about foodways. The more of this we share, the more we can move away from making food some high media frennzied high stress high bullshit activity, one which will give our kids a love of food and all of its fascinating ways.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Not With a Bang

But a whimper, as T.S. Eliot put it, the end of the world, that is. And after reading an opinion piece in the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday, January 10, 2010, I am scared that it will be the whimper of the last hungry people, who may well be not in some developing nation, but down your own street. I tried to find a link to the article but couldn't so I am going to type the whole thing in here.

Future of food policy must start at home
Alan Dupont
Director, University of Sydney Centre for International Security Studies
(The Centre has a food security program funded through the Macarthur Foundation)
Sydney Morning Herald, January 10, 2010, p 11

Long accustomed to plentiful and affordable meat, fish, fruit and vegetables, Australians may have to get used to higher prices as the soaring cost of agricultural staples suggests and era of cheap food is coming to an end.

After a brief pause, due to the global economic crisis which temporarily depressed demand, international food prices are approaching those of mid-2008, when the costs of rice, corn, cereals, and soybeans skyrocketed, triggering food riots and political instability in more than 30 countries.

Of course, spikes in food prices are not new, nor are they necessarily a cause for concern. As every shopper knows, agricultural produce is prone to seasonal and cyclical fluctuations as the devastating floods in Queensland are about to remind us. But longer-term trends indicate that structural shifts in demand and supply are beginning to alter the food calculus.

On the demand side, the two key challenges are population growth and changing dietary patterns, sometimes called the nutrition transition. In 1798, when the English demographer Thomas Malthus penned his sombre warning that population growth would outrun food production until checked by famine, war, and ill health, the world's population was less than a billion. Today it is 6.7 billion. By 2050, when it is expected to reach 9.2 billion, agricultural production will need to have doubled to meet demand.

The accompanying nutrition transition is being driven by rising incomes in a developing world that has recorded dramatic and rapid changes in dietary patterns. The burgeoning Chinese and Indian middle classes are becoming more like Australians in their eating habits, consuming meat, milk and grain like never before. While good news for Australian farmers, since we export 60 per cent of our agriculture, these dietary changes are straining a world food system in urgent need of renewal.

Supply side pressures include a steady erosion of productive farm land due to urbanisation and environmental stress the loss of much of the world's fertile topsoil, higher energy costs, shrinking food stocks, the diversion of corn to produce biofuels, climate change and water scarcity. Agriculture accounts for 70 per cent of the world's use of surface water. With nearly half the world's population forecast to be living under severe water stress by 2030, water availability is the  biggest constraint on future food production.

Prices increases are not the only indicator of food insecurity. In a contentious new development, China, India, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states are buying or leasing agricultural land from countries that need capital and have land to spare. Saudi officials have visited even Australia to explore land for food deals.

While poorer countries may be able to invest the money received into improving their agriculture, the downside is that foreign land acquisitions can cause significant political and social tensions, lead to the exploitation of farmers and distort trade.

These acquisitions are a telling vote of no confidence in international markets by food-deficient countries, which understandably fear a repeat of the 2008 food crisis may deny them opportunities to buy grains and other essential soft commodities at any price.

Is there a solution? Nothing less than a second green revolution will reduce food anxieties and restore faith in the market. A crucial first step is to invest more in agriculture, which for too long has lagged behind manufacturing and the services sector.

Biotechnology and improved farming practices can help. But neither is a panacea. Food insecurity stems form a complex mix of political, economic and environmental policy failures which will need redressing to ensure that the next time food prices escalate, there are substantial international reserves to draw on and governments resile from knee-jerk, counter-productive measures, such as reducing or suspending critical food exports.

As an important food exporter, Australia must get its house in order by giving substance to its worthy, but still unrealised promise to integrate all aspects of national food policy "from the paddock to the plate". If we cannot guarantee our own food security with the resources of a continent at our disposal, we can hardly expect less well-endowed nations to do so.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Jaggery Pudding - A Recipe from the Cookbook of Ada de la Harpe

The Kittul tree (kittul-gaha) is in size between the cocoa and the areka…A little underneath the lowest leaf rises a large bud, from a stalk of the thickness of a man’s wrist, and a yard or more in length. This contains the flower. Before the flower bursts forth, the end of the stalk is cut off, and a small chatty is fastened to it, to catch the liquor that oozes from it, and from which jaggory, a course sugar is made...
Selkirk, Rev. J. Recollections of Ceylon. First published 1844. This edition Colombo: Lake House Bookshop, 1993, pp39-40.

Jaggery is used extensively in Sri Lankan cuisine - in sweets, mixed with coconut and rolled in crepes, in some curries, in wattalappam - the magnificent Sri Lankan steamed pudding - and in the following which is another recipe from the cookbook of Ada de la Harpe, my grandmother. Jaggery traditionally comes in a half ball that's formed from setting the jaggery in a scraped and dried coconut shell, and then wrapped in pandanus leaf with a handy loop to string it off you finger as you shop. You can still get it as the half ball in Sri Lankan groceries in Australia, usually packed in a plastic bag with or without its pandanus wrapping, and you call also get it set in a plastic tub, like a butter tub, but I have had the devil of a time extracting it from this and besides I don't trust the plastic impact on the jaggery over time. You can also get it in a foil package in which I have found it sweats a tad, so you can like the inside of the packet if you are in to that oral kinda thing (and I am). The pudding itself is a sort of bread pudding.

Ada's version (in all these blog posts I will give you Ada's recipe as she wrote it, and then my updated version)
1/2 ball of jaggery - scraped, thick milk of 1/2 large coconut. 2 eggs - 18 cajunuts - 4 slices bread from lb loaf

Method Beat the  jaggery with the yolks of eggs. Then add the bread soaked in coconut milk. Then slices cajunuts and vanilla essence. Last of all the well-beaten whites of the eggs. Put the mixture into a buttered dish, sprinkle a little cajunuts on top, and back to colour.

Updated version
300g jaggery, grated
1 cup of coconut milk made from 1 cup hot water and three tablespoons coconut milk powder or 1 cup of thick canned coconut milk
2 eggs, separated yolk from the white with the latter reserved
1 small handful of unsalted cashew nuts, sliced thin
4 slices of thick white bread

Pre-heat your oven to 220C
Soak the slices of bread in the coconut milk enough to make them soggy, but don't let the mixture get mushy, you want a little body in the bread for the pudding.
Beat the grated jaggery and the yolks of the eggs together till the mixture is a thick cream.
Add the soaked bread and mix in well.
Add the slices of cashewnut and mix in well.
Beat the egg whites till stiff and fold them into the jaggery batter.
Butter a ceramic or glass baking dish. You want one in which the pudding batter will come about 2/3 from the top to allow the pudding to rise.
Pour the batter into the buttered dish and place in the oven.
Bake for 30 - 40 minutes till the pudding has risen, the top has a soft firmness when you press it gently, and a skewer comes out clean when pricked into the batter.
If you like, sprinkle a few more slivers of  cashew nut on top. k

Now, you can serve it hot like this and the pud will stay nice and high. Or you can leave it to cool, in which case it will sink, but then you can top it with a mix of fresh berries, or some ice cream, or both, or neither before you serve it.

This quantity should satisfy 4 - 6 guests depending on how you choose to serve it.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Dhal Soup - A Recipe from the Cookbook of Ada de la Harpe

This is a cross between rasam - a thin Indian soup made with tomatoes and spices, usually eaten with dosai or rice, often one of the dishes in a thali - and a European broth. Whereas with the rasam you serve it tomato pieces, spices and all, with this soup you strain it as you would a broth before serving. It has a wonderful fragrance and delicate sweetness from the cinnamon - the stronger the cinnamon the more the fragrance - cut with the acid of the tomato, with the dhal giving just enough body.

I cannot remember ever having had this as a child, but it has become an instant favourite. It's perfect for vegans, vegetarians and those with gluten intolerance, but carnivores will be mighty satisfied with it too.

Ada's version (in all these blog posts I will give you Ada's recipe as she wrote it, and then my updated version)

1/2 "chundu' of dhal. Out it to boil in about 6 tea-cups of water. Put in with it (less not more), of a dessert-spoonful of coriander roughly ground, same quantity of maldive fish well ground, 2 small or 1 large tomato, salt, celery, cinnamon, and any other vegetables, such as carrots. When reduced to about 4 cups, put in about 2 table-spoonfuls of thin coconut milk, and keep on stirring for some time. Then strain and temper with a good amount of red onions - (This quantity is enough for six persons.

Updated version

1/4 cup of red dhal ( a "chundu" was a small round cigarette tin and this amount is a good approx.)
6 cups water
1 dessertspoonful coriander seed roughly ground
1 dessertspoonful maldive fish (A particular variety of dried fish you can get in Indian and Sri Lankan groceries. If you can't get it, don't be tempted to substitute dried prawns, they will be too...prawny.)
1 large tomato
1 stalk celery
1 carrot
1 stick cinnamon (about 5 cms long)
a pinch of salt
2 tablespoons of coconut milk (I make it up from a heaped tablespoon of powdered coconut milk to 2 tablespoons of water. If you are using canned coconut milk, thin it out till it is the consistency of lite milk.)
3 or 4 shallots or small red onions (NOT Spanish onions), diced small
a little vegetable oil

Wash the dhal in a little water two or three times to get rid of excess starch powder. 

Put all the ingredients except the coconut milk into a saucepan, bring to the boil and simmer till the quantity is reduced by around 1/3. Keep skimming off any froth that forms on the top.

Add the coconut milk and simmer for 10 minutes.

Strain the broth through muslin. Leave it to stand, covered, for 10 minutes to let sediment to settle. 

Meanwhile, heat the oil in a frypan and when hot add the diced onions and fry till just browning. Remove and drain on kitchen paper.

To serve, take a ladle of soup being careful not to disturb the sediment, and pour into small soup bowls and top each with a sprinkle of fried onions.

Chinese rice bowls are good, or you can use shot glasses - in which case you will get more than 6 serves but you will want to be sparing with the fried onion tempering, a dice or two will do.

The Coobook of Ada de la Harpe

I introduced you to my grandmother's cookbook in the last post on making breuder, so I thought I'd tell you more about her and the cookbook.

Ada lived through the latter part of the 1800’s and into the 1950’s. She was a housewife, and like other Burgher women of her time she oversaw the kitchen and the preparation of meals. At some time in her life, I’m not sure just when and my mother is also not certain, she set about documenting her recipes. 

Keeping a personal recipe book was not an uncommon practice among woman householders of the times.
What I think is unusual about Ada’s is that she seems to have sat down and written all of it at the one time, perhaps from notes or cards she once had and perhaps some from memory. Most personal cookbooks like hers are a grab bag of recipes written or pasted in as the collector finds or is given recipes they want to keep. Ada’s is organised as a formal cookbook, with separate sections that follow each other in a sequence with no blank pages between for adding new recipes in. The pages are numbered and there is an index at the back. Finally, the recipes are ordered in groups according to the style of the dish and these groups are ordered generally according to the form of an English meal - soup, fish, meat, chutneys and accompaniments, puddings, cakes (with a few deviations  - eggs, sauces, and salads coming between the soup and fish).

That is, she clearly wrote the book from start to finish with a clear plan in mind and knowing exactly what recipes she wanted to record. Certainly, once she finished recording what she had, she added no more. When my mother took over the book she used it in the more usual way: some of her recipes are hand written but many are cutout from magazines, and they aren't bracketed together according to style of dish.

The book also lacks recipes for vegetable curries, many sambols, hoppers, dosai, pittu or other features of the Sri Lankan Burgher table. When I asked my mum why this might be, she suggested that perhaps how to prepare vegetables was common knowledge or considered too simple and straightforward to write a recipe for. I think their are two other likely reasons. Often books like these were ones in which a woman would record dishes that were specialties of hers, ones that she may have adapted or created or was particularly known for within and outside of the family, ones again that were usually more complicated or difficult and needed more than common knowledge. Ada's Christmas Cake recipe is a good example of this. 

The other reason is that in Ada's house, as in the houses of most Sri Lankan Burghers, most of the cooking was not done by the woman head of the house but by a hired cook, usually a Singhalese or Tamil girl or woman, but sometimes also a boy or man. My father told me that cooks were generally selected, after recommendation, on the basis of being able to prepare basic Sri Lankan food - rice and curry - and istek, istu, and cutliss, that is beefsteak, stew and cutlets, the simplest of European dishes and ones that they could be trusted to make without supervision. The rest of the European dishes in the repertoire of the Burgher woman were her responsibility. Hence the recipes in Ada's book for liver and bacon, broiled beef and mutton, blancmange, chocolate cake and such.

I've updated some of Ada's recipes on my Sri Lankan food site. As a project for this year I will now work my way through all of her recipes, updating them as necessary. I'll post them on the blog as I do them. They provide a fascinating look into the domestic life of an ethnic group that is in decline.

I will blog at a later time about the domestic servants in the households of women like Ada - a fascinating area about which little has been formally written.

Saturday, January 1, 2011


Brueder - aka brooder and broder - is a sweet dough based cake traditionally made for Christmas and New Year in Sri Lankan Burgher households, a highly contested feature of the season, brought out with much flourish at each obligatory round of visits to relatives and near acquaintances, to receive the obligatory compliments on the lightness, the goldenness, the perfect distribution of raisins, and to be the subject after at the domestic dinner table of obligatory severe criticism when compared to that of one's mother-in-law/ spouse/ mother.

Its immediate relatives are Alsatian kugelhopf and Milanese pannetone, though it is more restrained in its ingredients than these; more...well...Dutch Reform as befits its source of entry into Burgher cuisine, than the alcohol fueled Celticism of the Kirsch or Cognac soaked raisins in the former or the luxurious Romish Catholicism of the latter with its tang of candied citrus.

I've just made my third attempt, and I am honest enough to say it compares not at all with the ghosts of breuders past. I put it down to the simple fact that I do not understand dough, which is to say that I don't understand the kneading of it and have a tendency to be too heavy or too long about it. My attempts at making bread are inevitable on the stodgy side and adding egg yolks as you do in brueder seems to just compound this tendency. People are kind about the result but it usually fails that critical test, the asking of a second slice.

But then, making breuder and the traditional Sri Lankan Christmas cake each year (look here under Cake 1) for me isn't part of an annual competitive social display. In the small circle of kin who meet together for a shared meal at Christmas complementariness and not competition is the rule. Making brueder and Christmas cake for me is as much about honouring my grandmother and mother and their part in making me the cook that I am as it is about giving pleasure to relatives and friends. It was when sitting cross-legged on the kitchen table stirring together the wealth of ingredients for the cake as they were added by my grandmother to a seemingly enormous brass bowl (and later, perched precariously now on a stool and leaning over the kitchen bench, adding the ingredients myself as my mother supervised her Sunbeam mixer), then placing a pale yellow batter gravel thick with dried fruit into a hot oven, and finally withdrawing hours later a treacle brown, firm, moist, warm cake from the oven, that the marvel of the transformative process that is cooking first entranced me.

Here's my grandmother's recipe for breuder:

2 lbs dough
10 hen eggs or 10 hen and 3 duck eggs, only yolks
¼ lb or less of plums
½ lb sugar
2 oz butter 

Take a board or basin - rub in a little butter on it, and in the hands, too. Mix up the dough with butter, till smooth. Then put in half number of eggs, one by one. Then sugar and remaining eggs alternately. Work it up until the mixture is well set, and comes off the board. Grease the pan and put in half the dough, then some plums, then the rest of the dough and the plums on top. Bake in a fairly hot oven. It would be best to leave the filled pan in the sun for an hour or two to allow it to rise before baking.  

How to make 1 lb of dough Peroline Brand dried live yeast. Use a teaspoon of this dehydrated yeast. 1 teaspoon sugar. ½ teacup hot water.

Method. Dissolve sugar and yeast in the hot water. Add the lb of flour and leave to ferment overnight for the best results.

You can read more of her recipes here.

You can find my updating of her recipe here under either Eggs 3 or Bread/Cake 2.I've metricised the quantities of the dry ingredients, reduced the number of egg yolks as mod Australian eggs are much larger than the free range eggs of the Sri Lankan chickens of her day and clarified that by 'plums' she means raisins. I have no idea whether Peroline brand yeast is available anywhere and just use a good baker's dry yeast.

Breuder is eaten with slices of Edam cheese usually, but I prefer it with a good sharp cheddar, and just to be sentimental I like to find one that has that red waxy skin you get around a ball of Edam.