Last week was Mr T’s birthday. He wanted it to be a low key affair, as he doesn’t like to fuss over getting another year older, but I managed to convince him otherwise and have a house party instead. “Ok” he said “ but only a few people because I want to be able to talk to everyone “. That’s easier said than done, the close family alone adds up to 16 ( with kids, partners and grand kids! ), so when it came to invite friends as well we kept it intimate and asked his oldest mates over. By oldest, I mean people Mr T has known since childhood and kept in touch with his whole life. This is something that amazes me as I lost contact with nearly all my school friends in France, and have Facebook to thank for reconnecting with a few of them in the past 10 years.
So we had Ian, Bill and Phyllis, Ross and Carol, Alan and Sandra whose friendship with Mr T dates back to primary school, and have endured thru surfing days, motorbikes days, overseas postings, children and now grand-children…

Mr T was always a daredevil at heart and has tried his hand at various mechanical endeavours: from bikes to cars, speed boats, planes, yachts, he is a man consistently on the move and with a competitive inner streak pushing him to be the best at whatever he does. It makes living with him an exciting challenge, a mix of adventure and self-discovery, where one’s comfort zone ( especially mine ) is very often expanded…I managed to resurrect old photos and newspaper clips of his exploits past and presents, displayed them all on a timber pallet ( officiating as a frame ) as well as a tracking his journey ( so far ) on a cork world map.

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This turned out to be a fantastic trip down memory lane for the older folks and a fascinating discovery for the younger ones who had no idea Mr T was like a cat with nine lives.

We made the party an open-ended one, where people could come and go as they pleased. Some showed up at noon and left at 5pm, others joined us at 4pm and stayed till late…Knowing that up to 25 guests would pass thru my front door as they would thru a revolving one, I settled on a menu that included not only Mr T’s favourite dishes, but also food that could easily be served cold or kept warm for a while. Usually I would ask guests to bring a dish ( well, they always ask what to bring beside their drinks, it’s an australian thing ) but this time around I thought I would call on some of our local food providores to save time and effort.
Dozens of Coffin Bay oysters and a side of smoked salmon were ordered from Mrs Fish at the Sutherland markets. The french cheeses were supplied by Stephs Gourmet Foods, also from the markets. As for the main dishes, I called on Shire Foods catering who make a mean potato bake, delicious salads and supplied us with ready to cook chicken wings, lamb and chicken skewers.
I enlisted Mr T’s daughters for curry puffs, as they are his absolute favourite snacks ( actually I have not met anyone who doesn’t like these spicy morsels ) and the girls are experts at making them. They also volunteered to make chocolate cupcakes in lieu of a big birthday cake, an offer I gratefully accepted. This left me plenty of time to set up at a leisurely pace, prepare platters, and make an alternate dessert of individual lemon coconut creme brulees, as I was worried we would not have enough food.

The cold appetisers came out first:

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plump and briny oysters served natural with lemon slices,
smoked salmon with chive cream cheese and taramasalata to spread on fresh bread slices,

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Cheese platter and crackers,

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summer fruit platter of grapes, rockmelon, blood orange, strawberries, pineapple and passion fruit,

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followed by the Curry puffs with their dipping sauces

At that stage it was late afternoon and our first lot of guests elected to go home, not realising there was more food to come. Indeed we had lamb and chicken skewers in the BBQ as well as arancini and potato bake reheating in the oven, which our late comers enthusiastically dug in along with the pumpkin and spinach salad and chinese cabbage salad.

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There was much adult banter around the table while the kids split in groups of boys and girls, the former playing rough on the trampoline and the latter practicing their dance routine in our driveway.

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It was well and truly dark before desserts were brought out and Mr T was made to blow the candles strategically placed on the cupcakes. These were particularly popular with the kids and anyone with a very sweet tooth, while the creme brulees seem to appeal to the more healthy conscious. Not that it made a great deal of difference, once a big dollop of cream was added on top! And considering the enormous amount of food and drinks consumed beforehand, one could hardly argue it was a healthy eating day anyway. But it was such a fun one!

Lemon Coconut Creme Brulee

This recipe came about when I wanted a french-style dessert with some exotic flavour. It is lighter than a traditional creme brulee, as the mixture is not as custardy. As a matter of fact, it is more like a flan really, which happen to have hard caramel on top!

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Serves 4-6 for dessert

Ingredients:
4 large eggs
1 cup coconut milk, well stirred so that the cream is mixed with the liquid
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 tsp lemon zest
1 cup whole milk
1/3 cup caster sugar
1/3 cup soft brown sugar

  1. Preheat the oven to 165C
  2. Beat the eggs, coconut milk, vanilla, lemon zest, milk and sugar in a blender until well mixed. Strain the mixture into a jug
  3. Pour the flan mixture into individual ramekins. Place into a large baking tray and half fill the tray with water.
  4. Bake for 45 minutes or until firm. A little wobbly is ok, it will firm up as it cools.
  5. Remove from the oven and leave to cool completely. Once cool, refrigerate until required.
  6. Once ready to serve, remove the flans from the fridge, sprinkle brown sugar evenly across the top of each to cover and broil under a very hot grill until the sugar is melted. Chill in the fridge for a few minutes before serving.
    Note: Watch the grill to ensure the sugar does not burn, a few of my flans did but luckily my guests didn’t mind the strong caramel flavour ( how polite !) Alternatively, you can use a blow torch to harden and caramelise the top of each flans

French Pear Cake

A couple of weeks ago I found these gorgeous looking pears at our local market and brought them home, anticipating to have them as part of a cheese and fruit platter. Then our dinner plans changed, and the poor things sat pretty in the fruit bowl, completely neglected by all members of the family. I must say that my lot loves fruits, as long as they are cut and prepped for them ready to eat, like in a fruit salad or freshly juiced. Except for bananas and apples, which I regularly put into lunchboxes for the very reason that they take minimum effort to peel and are not as messy to eat ( read dripping juice all over your school uniform ).

 

Anyway, back to the pears, they had grown that pale green ripe look begging for action.
The fruits were too juicy to have with cheese but still firm enough to hold their shape in a cake. The pear cake I had in mind is one of our favourite recipe I came across over 25 years ago. It is from France The Beautiful Cookbook, by the Scotto sisters who take you through the regions of France describing the link between their landscape, history and of course gastronomy. This is one of the first cookbook I owned and as a novice cook and one away from home, I cannot tell you how many watches were spent on the boat pouring over recipes of Sole Meuniere, Duck with Olives or Potato Gratin. Some of the ingredients were sometimes a challenge to find while cruising ( foie gras in the Solomon Islands, artichokes in South America? ) but somehow I managed to cook a few meals from it, as evidenced by the well worn cover and a few dog-ear marked pages.

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One of them is page 233, Poirier D’Anjou or Pear Cake.
I have made this cake a few times, both on and off the boat, it is quite homely ( ahhhh the aroma while baking !!) but good looking enough to pass as a classy dessert ( as it did once, when I donated one to my daughter’s school fete, labelling it French Pear Cake and packaged it in a pretty box . Someone paid $20 for it !!)

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I have altered the original recipe “to bring it into the 21st century” as a friend of mine would say, using very ripe fruits thus allowing me to skip the syrup making stage and using less sugar, substituting wholemeal spelt flour for some of the plain flour ( for a bit of goodness without tasting too healthy ) and omitting the cointreau in the glaze because I was planning to feed young children with it ( feel free to add it for an adult version! ). And while the recipe makes enough for a large cake, I split it into 3 smaller baking moulds so that we could eat one cake and give away the other two. Why do such a thing? I hear you ask. Because, we are supposed to eat healthy, and since I don’t like the idea of dieting and depriving ourselves, I still bake cakes. Except that instead of a large one that the four of us can’t really finish, now I bake several small ones to share.
Sharing is caring, right?

French Pear Cake

Adapted from France The Beautiful Cookbook

Serves 6-8

Ingredients

2/3 cup caster sugar
1 kg ripe but still firm pears ( about 3 pears )
90g butter
1 cup plain flour
2/3 wholemeal spelt flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 eggs
200ml milk
1 tsp vanilla essence
2 tbsp black currant jelly
1 tbs water
3 tbsp cointreau or grand marnier ( optional )

  1. Preheat oven to 200C. Melt the butter in a small saucepan and let cool slightly. Line 3 11x17cm cake pans with baking paper.
  2. Combine the flours and baking powder in a food processor. Add the eggs, the sugar, the butter, vanilla essence and milk. Blend to form a smooth batter. Pour equally into the cake pans.fullsizeoutput_3b2f
  3. Half, peel, and core the pears. Cut each half vertically into thick slices and arrange on top of the batter in rows. Bake for 35 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean.
  4. Meanwhile, heat the jelly and the water until the mixture boils. Mix well, add cointreau if using and remove from the heat. Coat the cake with the syrupy jelly and bake for another 5 minutes.
  5. Let it cool for a while before unmolding. Serve with vanilla ice cream or fresh cream.
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One of the things I remember the most about cruising life is that the boat always comes first. Not only is it your home but it is also and more importantly your mode of transportation. Comfort and convenience come second to safety. This means that many a destination was picked around boating facilities and/or weather windows.
Flying a plane is not much different, and though a lot of our trips don’t revolve around servicing requirement and seasonal patterns, some of them do. Take our trip to Southern Queensland a few months ago.

It all started with a mechanical issue we could not have fixed in Sydney. Our auto-pilot kept playing up and it turned out that the only people with the proper testing equipment were located on the Gold Coast. Mr T promptly arranged for servicing and after being told it would take 3 days, he casually asked the kids if they would like to come along for the ride. Being school holidays , of course, Anne jumped to the opportunity, we invited a couple of her girlfriends to join ( one flew with us, the other joined us later flying commercially ) as well as Malcolm and his 2 children, Harry and Hannah.
Someone enquired about my foodie plans for this trip which made me laugh because it was such short notice, I didn’t really have time to do any research. Besides, travelling with 2 guys in business mode, 3 teenage girls and 2 younger kids all obsessed with amusement parks, I didn’t like my chances of sampling anything gourmet.

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So it was very much a matter of “if you can’t beat them. join them” and I decided to go with the flow mixing dinners in Pubs, Clubs, and the odd Thai neighbourhood restaurant. All with surprisingly good results!

The flight north to Coolangatta took about 3 hours, which the kids spent mostly eating and playing games while Mal practised his piloting skills under the watchful eye of Mr T ( he later said, it is just like driving a boat! )

We arrive there in time before the fuel truck calls it a day, hand over the plane to the mechanic, collect the van, and provision for drinks before checking in at the Kirra Palms Holiday Apartments, only a few minutes drive from the airport ( a pre-requisite to any accomodation in our books, as Mr T likes to stay close to his plane ). Ours is a 3 bedroom top floor apartment, bigger than we need but it was all that was available online at such short notice. The interior is a little dated but there is plenty of space and location is superb, overlooking the beach and just across the Kirra Beach Hotel.

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This is where we end up the first night, not only is it convenient but it also used to be a favourite hangout of Danielle’s, Harry and Hannah’s mum, and I promised that I would report. It is a typical australian hotel: sports bar on one side, pokies on the other, and a kids club house near the restaurant.

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The place is packed, we are lucky to nab a table for the 7 of us and we send the kids to stand in the queue while Mr T fetches drinks and the rest of us guard the table. This is Pub Grub at its finest and everyone pick their favourite: surf and turf, caesar salad and fish and chips for the adults,

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burger for Harry, chicken schnitzel for Hannah, pizza, chicken wings and nachos for Anne and Georgia ( they thought they were snacks size! )

Servings are generous, to say that we are full is an understatement and as we waddle back to the apartment, I am already figuring out out how to pace myself for the next 3 days!

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The next morning starts early for an action packed day: with 6 theme parks to choose from in 3 days and business meetings planned for the guys, Anne and Georgia offered to take the younger ones to Dreamworld that first day.

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It works out perfect, as the park is near the Hope Harbour marina where Mr T and Mal have arranged for boat inspections. It also happens to be where some of our cruising friends are staying while preparing to sail up north and I am more interested in visiting them than crawling over commercial boats. Except that I didn’t warn anyone of our upcoming visit and while we manage to catch Steve, the husband on one of the catamarans, he is in between boat jobs and none of the ladies are around that day. So much for winging it, I think, and we drive around Sanctuary Cove instead.

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It’s been a long time since our last visit here: we first came in the ealry 90s when it first opened, and was a near compulsory stop in the days when we used to cruise up and down the east coast. While the Marina has not changed much, a few of the shops have: the brewery is no longer there, nor is the produce market, replaced by homeware shops and trendy restaurants. We find the local pub, Sanctuary Cove Tavern, and decide on a light lunch: salt and pepper squid for me, spiced up by small chunks of fried chorizo and citrus aioli. Mal orders the Thai beef salad which is made up of shredded marinated beef and the usual combo of rice noodles, shredded cabbage, peanuts, asian herbs and chili dressing. Terry picks the lightest thing on the menu: duck spring rolls and dipping sauce.

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Both guys are happy with their small meals though I think they care more about the beers and are saving their appetite for dinner. After lunch, we drive around the area for a while, gawking at the rather ostentatious houses around Sovereign Island and imagining how it would be to park our boats in one of these canals, then before you know it, it is time to collect the kids at Dreamworld and drive the long way home.

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By the time we arrive back in Kirra it is dark, everyone is tired and hungry. We let the children decide where to go for dinner, and to my surprise, they choose the local Thai restaurant, Rama 5, a few steps down the road ( I mean, doesn’t anyone want nuggets or pizzas??) and recommended by Adam, the manager at Kirra Palms.

The place is busy for a weeknight, and with most tables taken inside, we settle for outside sitting. Service is fast and friendly, and we particularly appreciate the waitresses pulling the plastic blinds down to shelter us from the wind and rain. One even brings over a few cushions to keep young Hannah warm!
On to the food: I love it when kids have adventurous tastes, and these ones tonight amaze me. Both Anne and Georgia order Chicken Pad See Ew, the epitome of Thai food and their favourite dish of stir fried rice noodles in soy sauce. “ I don’t mind spicy food ” Harry goes for the jungle curry and even Hannah, usually a picky eater, orders basil chicken! I expected them to share, but they didn’t, in fact they were so hungry they finished their plate in record time, not even giving me a chance to take photos! We all did share plates of money bags and mixed entrees though, a nice combination of chicken satays, spring rolls, curry puffs, fish cakes and calamari rings.

On the adults front, Mal chose a red prawn curry, Mr T a beef panang curry ( which tastes pretty much like a yellow curry with extra vegetables in it ) and I pick the pineapple combination fried rice. The latter only has a hint of pineapple but is chock full of prawns, pork and chicken. The curries are medium spicy as requested, hot enough for me, but not for Mr T who asks for extra chilies. The waitress comes back with these little bowls of red chilies in soya sauce and a smile on her face, as if not many customers like it hot. Well, Mr T is in heaven, and asks for another serve of chili!


Dessert is waiting at the apartment, ice cream and chocolate then it’s off to bed for everyone in anticipation of another day of rollercoasters!

 

 

It has been a while since our last themed family feast. We usually save them for special occasions like birthdays and in the last 6 weeks we’ve had plenty of opportunities as we had 4 birthdays to celebrate. First was Anne’s, who turned 15 and requested her junk food, aka KFC, MacDonalds, pizzas and ice cream cake. I prepared a green cob salad for good measure, but dinner was pretty much a matter of Mr T driving around collecting take out!

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Then it was Tania’s turn, and though we didn’t celebrate on the actual day, we all gathered 2 weeks later for a “comfort food” lunch. The cold weather had a lot to do with the theme choice and unsurprisingly everyone picked delicious high carb dishes to make. Think roast pork, cauliflower gratin, mac and cheese, pulled pork pies, apple pie and ice cream. A very white and brown meal saved for the fennel and mache salad I put together at the last minute (I can’t help myself, I need greens on the table!)

For the boys (Malcolm and his son, Harry), the choice was easy: Mal elected to eat out at the Bavarian Café, so we all feasted on pork knuckle and sauerkraut (and copious amount of beer for some of us) while Harry preferred to host the family at home (his) with you guessed it, KFC, pizzas, sausage rolls and lollies! It is a Steen’s ritual after all I think.

By now you are probably wondering whatever happened to our gourmet feasts of old. Well let me take you back to late April, on a balmy autumn afternoon. It was close to my birthday, and though lunch wasn’t meant to be a birthday lunch, we ate and drank in a celebratory fashion…I called the theme “Wine country picnic lunch”, inspired by a recent trip to the Mornington Peninsula where we spent 4 days exploring vineyards and eating our way thru glorious restaurants and cellars doors. One of the highlights was at Foxey’s Hangout where 9 of us sat on the terrace overlooking the vines and feasted on the 7 course chef’s menu, which consisted of little plates of everything from the menu matched with their house wines. The standout was mushroom sausage rolls, which were so meaty and flavourful, I swore to replicate the dish as soon as we came home.

When asked by our guests what to bring, my instructions were thus to think of anything that they would take on a picnic and would fit on a wooden board.
I love to be surrounded by people who love food just as much as I do, so it is always exciting to see the girls roll with whatever theme is chosen and the results were nothing short of delicious.

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Shelley and Tania gave me a giant board as a gift, shaped from the top of a wine barrel. That was the perfect vessel for the best looking cheese and charcuterie board, showcasing all sorts of cured meats, pates, gooey cheeses, briny olives and luscious honeycomb.

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Tania made a smoked salmon terrine, enriched with anchovy and caper butter.

 

Rosalie’s filo pastry quiches were a hit, as were Danielle’s pork sausage rolls and perfect companions to my mushroom rolls.

 

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As usual I prepared a green salad, this time it was a warm one, made of sautéed zucchinis and mint served alongside roasted sweet potatoes. These were to go with the chicken kebabs that Craig had brought along.

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Dessert was a lot of fun: I could not decide on a single one so I prepared 4 plates. Admittedly, one was a fruit platter, because who doesn’t like to pick at berries and grapes at the end of a meal. Then I had leftover white chocolate and raspberry birthday cake from the day before, so cut it into bit sized squares. Still wanting to cook something, I turned to the pantry and found a bag of culinary lavender I brought back from Tasmania a while ago and decided to make madeleines with them. Finally, following Anne’s request for a paleo kind of dessert, I came up with a peanut chocolate tartlets recipe which was a hit.

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The morning after…

To keep with the Wine Country Picnic theme, I selected wines to match from my own cellar (more a dark spot in the recess of our laundry masquerading as a cellar!) which we had collected during our road trips over the past 3 years. With Sparkling Rose from Foxey’s Hangout ( Mornington Peninsula ), Keith Tulloch’s Semillon ( Hunter Valley ), Devils Corner Pinot Noir ( Tasmania ), Artemis Pinot Noir ( Southern Highlands ), Cupitt’s Slaughterhouse Red ( NSW South Coast ) and the iconic Wolf Blass grey Label Shiraz ( McLaren Vale ), lunch lasted well into the night as we ate and drank our way around Australia’s wine country.

Needless to say that we had some leftovers and the beauty of finger food is that it was perfect for lunch boxes or just light snacks to have with coffee!!

 

Mushroom “Sausage” rolls

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This is my take on these yummy mushrooms rolls from Foxeys Hangout. It is adapted from a recipe from Le Petit Oeuf, which also include comte cheese. I have kept it very simple with only mushrooms and a few aromatics and puff pastry ( or paleo pastry if you prefer ), leaving out the cheese. Serve with a spicy tomato chutney or plain tomato sauce, and watch them disappear. Even our mushroom haters love them!
Serves 18-20 bite sized pieces as part of a buffet or 4 rolls

Ingredients
4 sheets of puff pastry ( thawed out if frozen )
4 tbsp olive oil
1 kg of mixed mushrooms (swiss browns, flat, portobello…the more variety, the stronger the flavour ), cleaned and roughly chopped
2 large brown onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, crushed
Thyme sprigs ( or 1 tbsp of dried thyme )
1 beaten egg
1. Keep the puff pastry in the fridge until ready to use.
2. Prepare the mushroom filling: Heat 2 tbsp of olive oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and fry for 5-10 minutes, stirring until softened. Add the thyme and garlic and cook for another minute or two. Remove the onion mix from the pan and set aside in a bowl. Place the pan back on high heat, add the rest of the olive oil then the mushrooms. Cook for about 10 minutes, until they are soft and all the moisture has come out of them. You want a dry pan. Turn off the heat and remove the mushrooms, add them to the onion/garlic/thyme mix and leave to cool. Chill in the fridge until ready to assemble the rolls.
3. Assemble the rolls: Take the puff pastry sheets out of the fridge. Lay a quarter of the mushroom mix down the long middle of the pastry, making a big pile that runs to the edges of the pastry. Roll the pastry over the top, squeezing the contents tight ( as you would for a sushi roll ). As you reach the end of the roll, brush the last 1cm of pastry with the beaten egg, before finishing rolling. The egg will seal the roll. Trim the ends of the roll and place on a grill over a baking tray. Brush all over the top with the beaten egg and place in the fridge. Repeat with the other 3 sheets of pastry then leave in the fridge for 20 minutes or so for the rolls to firm up
4. Once well chilled, bake for 25 minutes in the oven pre-heated to 220C. They should be golden and puffed on top.
5. Slice in bite sized pieces and serve on a board accompanied with tomato sauce.

Lavender Spiced Honey Madeleines

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Lavender madeleines garnished with rosemary twigs, because I ran out of lavender sticks and I was told they both belong to the same family of plants

I have made these delicious sweet morcels a few times now, using a packet of culinary lavender I purchased during our Tasmanian road trip. The recipe is not mine, it is from Donna Hay, one of my favourite Australian food writer/stylist. It only takes 5 minutes to prepare and 10 minutes to bake, so I find it ideal to pop in the oven when pressed for time and you still want to have something nice and sweet. The lavender lends a subtle yet not overly floral scent while the honey gives the cake a lovely spicy taste. Delicious for dessert or with a cup of tea!

Makes 12

Ingredients:
½ cups plain flour, sifted
½ tsp baking powder, sifted
1/3 cup caster sugar
1 tsp dried lavender
2 eggs
80g unsalted butter, melted
1 tbsp honey
1 tsp vanilla essence
1. Pre-heat oven to 180C
2. Place the flour, baking powder, sugar, lavender, eggs, melted butter, honey and vanilla in a large bowl and whish until smooth.
3. Spoon the mixture into a lightly greased 12-hole madeleine tin. Cook for 8-10 minutes or until puffed and golden ( they certainly don’t take longer than 10mn !)
4. Remove from the tin and set aside to cool a little. Sprinkle with icing sugar and 1 tsp of dried lavender and serve.

 

Chocolate Peanut Tarts

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I found this recipe in a Vegan magazine, and adapted it to suit our paleo’s palate. While our diet is becoming increasingly plant based, we still like a bit of meat and dairy. I think, flexitarian is the term? So though this is a gluten free dessert, it does contain a little bit of dairy from the chocolate and a lot of nuts. The filling is a mix of coconut cream, peanut butter, chocolate and maple syrup which is smooth and quite rich. The base is coconut flavoured, and very short and crumbly in a nice way. Because of the richness of it, I find it better to bake small bite sized tartlets rather than bigger tarts. Then again, it depends how hungry your guests are!!!

Makes 5-6 tarts or 24 bite sized tartlets

Ingredients:

For the base
100g plain gluten free flour ( I mix tapioca and corn flour )
65g coconut flour
160g coconut oil, solid
5 tbsp maple syrup

For the filling
2 tins of coconut milk, cream only ( place the tins in the fridge first )
80g smooth peanut butter ( I used Mayver’s Smooth Dark Roasted Peanut Butter )
20g dark chocolate ( 70% or more )
1 tsp maple syrup

1. For the base: preheat the oven to 180C and grease the tartlet tins with butter
In a large mixing bowl, combine the gluten free flour, coconut flour, solid coconut oil and maple syrup. Mix and bring together with your fingers until a dough forms.
Press the dough into the tins, prick with a fork and place in the oven for 9-10 minutes until golden in colour ( watch that they do not burn! ) Allow to cool before filling
2. For the filling: scoop out the solid coconut cream from the top of the coconut milk and place in a saucepan. Heat gently until hot ( not boiling )
While the coconut cream is hot, stir in the peanut butter, chocolate and maple syrup until smooth and creamy. Set the filling aside to cool for about 30 minutes.
3. Once all cooled, spoon the filling into the tartlet crusts, pop into the fridge and allow to set, 1 or 2 hours.
4. The tarts/tartlets will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for a few days, though the crust will soften over time.

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The same crust, 2 ways: peanut butter chocolate filling in the foreground, raspberries and cream in the background

 

 

 

 

The problem when planning a country getaway is that I rely on the weather to be cooperative. Sunny and warm is the ideal, if not balmy and mild at the very least.
This is day two of our midweek getaway in the Hunter Valley and this morning we wake up to the worst conditions possible: it is blowing a gale, heavy rains are threatening to flood the whole Hunter region and the bureau of meteorology has issued a severe weather warning for the next 3 days! And to think that we were sipping wine under the verandah and relaxing by the pool yesterday…

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The plan for the day is to book a half day winery tour, maybe fit in a hike somewhere before dining at Muse, one of the Hunter Valley finest restaurants ( highly recommended by my friend Elaine, who sadly had to leave us the day before so she will miss out ).
Of the many tour operators advertising, a lot don’t run midweek and by the time I find someone who does, it is close to lunchtime and we decide it is too late to organise, preferring to do our own thing instead.
We are both famished ( the villa only provides basic tea and coffee facility, no mini bar or small biscuits, though provision of these can be arranged ) and Mr T suggests we walk up to the main building for brunch. Only thing is that it is pouring with rain, we don’t have an umbrella and I can see ourselves stuck in the resort restaurant all afternoon waiting for the weather to clear. So, we fall on plan B and call the local taxi who drives us to the Hunter Valley Gardens Village.
The gardens cover 12 hectares, each featuring a different style ( there is a rose garden, an oriental garden, a sunken garden… ) and linked by 8 kilometres of winding paths. I was really keen to practise on some macro and landscape photography, but well, did I mention the torrential rains? So we retreat undercover and seek shelter into the first cafe I come across.

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Stepping into The Taste of Country is like entering my mother’s kitchen: it is warm, the sturdy wooden furniture gives it a real country feeling ( which is the point ), except mum doesn’t have as many signs on the wall. We both order mugs of coffee and something to warm our bellies up: breakfast with the lot for Mr T and house made minestrone soup for me. The latter comes with a healthy serving of sourdough bread and butter, it is not what I would normally ask for when eating out, but today I am cold and wet, somewhat miserable for missing out on the garden walk, so I am going for comfort food! And it is a bit like a hug in a bowl.

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Since a hike is out of the question, we decide to buy an umbrella and find at least one wine cellar door. Luckily, McGuigan Wines is a short walk around the corner and the staff here welcomes us with open arms, it seems we are the only people coming in this afternoon. The atmosphere is very different to Keith Tulloch’s winery. Instead of soft lounges in white and cream surroundings, we stand in a main hall set up for large group tastings, with museum and cellar door only wines on display and available for tasting, while smaller groups can be accommodated in separate tasting rooms. I like how there is a mix of young and older wines, and taste my way thru to the exclusive Philosophy Cabernet Shiraz 2012 ( a $150 gem! ) ordering a case of Cellar Select Semillon and Shiraz to be home delivered.

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As luck would have it, the Hunter Valley Cheese shop happens to be next door so it is no surprise that we end up with a small collection to take home. The cheese manufacturing was set up over 20 years ago, to complement the wine offerings in the region. Some of the varieties on offer range from Brie to Washed rind and Ash Goat, any other day we would have sampled every one of them, but today, not only I am full from lunch but I also like to think that I know my cheeses well enough to choose on sight. Mr T is not looking forward to have smelly cheese on his plane, hehe!

By mid-afternoon, we’ve had enough of wandering in the rain so we catch a taxi back to the villa and having given up on any kind of hike, settle for a warm tea while catching up with some work ( so much for the romantic getaway! )

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Dinner time can’t come quick enough, as I have been looking forward to it all day. Muse Restaurant is considered a Hunter Valley icon. It is the brain child of local chef Troy Rhoades-Brown and his wife Megan. Their aim is to source the best local produce and showcase the ingredients, in a contemporary Australian style and judging by the number of awards won ( 2 chef hats from the SMH Good food Guide amongst them ), it has become a dining experience not to be missed.

Muse is located on the grounds of Hungerford Hills winery, a short distance from the resort. Our initial plan was to walk and work up an appetite, but relentless rain has meant that we’ve once again had to call on the taxi service ( we must be their best customers today!) Our booking is for 6.30pm and we arrive a few minutes earlier, not wanting to miss a minute of the upcoming experience.

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Another couple must have had the same idea as they are already waiting in the lobby ahead of us. As we are all asked to wait a few minutes, I spy behind the window, and watch the team being briefed by the chef. I can’t hear anything, but I am always fascinated to watch the serious faces, focused on the job ahead. It is as if the place is run with military precision. When the team is finally ready, we are led to our table in the order of which we have arrived and ours is placed near the open kitchen where I have full view of the staff, cooking away in a very calm fashion, none of these Masterchef style antics to distract diners…

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The waitress hands us the menu, which outlines the 4 course dinner we’re about to enjoy tonight.
That doesn’t mention the extras to come.

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Upon seating, we are greeted with a serving of sourdough bread and whipped macadamia butter.

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Then, comes a small plate of savoury palmiers with rolls of kolhrabi filled with some kind of mousse and topped with puffed rice.

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And a labne ball wrapped in a delicate “net “ of milk skin. You have to excuse my vagueness here, as much as I tried to remember the waitress’ every detailed description of the dishes, there is so much going on on the plate all I can say is that these amuse-bouches are sensational and I can’t wait for the actual meal to start.

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First course is a carrot with cured pork jowl, goats curd, Paxton honeycomb, ginger and blackberry: the carrot is tender, draped with a wafer thin slice of pork jowl. Mixed with the creaminess of the goat curd, the crunch of the honeycomb and the slight spice of the ginger, it is a lovely start. And we love the theatrics of the smokey dry ice whey which the waitress poured over the dish at the table.

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Second course for me is potato and black lip abalone, with cured yolk, mushroom in a chicken soy broth. My last experience with abalone was a disappointing one in Tasmania a few months ago, so I was keen to try again. Wow, this dish is playing tricks on my senses: the potato is turned into thin strands like angel hair pasta, it is topped with creamy cured egg yolk and shaved like pieces of abalone. Not chewy at all, and a very subtle hint of mushroom powder. It is delicious and I reluctantly agree to share with Mr T who is handing me his plate.

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His choice is king fish, with green tomato, green chili, citrus koshu, abruga caviar and shiso. It is like a tartare, with all raw ingredients. It is a very pretty dish, shaped in a circle, with the fish, tomato and chili mixed with japanese wine koshu, peppered with sevruga and shiso leaves. It is refreshing and light, I am thinking of stealing the idea for our next garden party feast.

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Third course is the mains, and both of us eschewed the wagyu beef, reportedly a signature dish, preferring to opt for the quail dish for Mr T and the Murray cod for me.
Mr T’s redgate farm quail comes with a plum, buckwheat noodles, umeboshi ( japanese salt plums ) and wild garlic capers. It is quite a tasty dish, with a definite umami flavor, and Mr T appreciates the deboned quail.

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I love the murray cod, served with heirloom tomato, wombok, saltbush, katsuobushi ( dried smoked bonito flakes ) and kimchi dressing. It is such a different way to serve the fish: tangy, salty, spicy and moist. Once again, I make a mental note to try this at home.

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We opt out of the optional cheese course, which doesn’t preclude us from being served a perfect palate cleanser of grapefruit sorbet.

Finally dessert time comes and, honestly these must be the best desserts we have had in a long time.

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The Muse coconut is a masterpiece of all things coconut: with no description on the menu, we are left to guess as we taste: the coconut “shell” is made of thin chocolate, filled with coconut mousse as light as air and coconut jelly inside. the whole thing sits on top of coconut “soil”, coco nibs and toasted coconut flakes. The only component I can see myself trying at home would be the toasted coconut flakes, the rest is so refined and precise, I tell Mr T I would fly back in a heartbeat just for this dessert.

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The other dessert choice is no less impressive: white chocolate and wattleseed set cream, hazelnut, banana sorbet and fermented golden passionfruit sit so pretty on the plate and taste divine. It is not overly sweet, which I like and taste like the tropics on a plate.

The 4 course dinner will set you back $105 per person, which is not cheap but considering that the whole experience lasts at least 3 hours and includes such beautifully crafted dishes, it is worth every dollar. Wine pairing is offered for an extra $10 per glass, though I didn’t avail myself to it, preferring to choose from their very extensive wine list and tasting local gems like Hungerford Hill Dalliance Sparkling, Andrew Thomas Braemore Semillon and Usher Tinkler Reserve Shiraz.

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Finally, when it is time to leave, we ask for a taxi to be called. As we wait, we are kindly offered a glass of liqueur which is a nice touch, especially as it appears that our taxi is missing in action. We find out that a few couples ahead of us called ubers who came from Newscastle, that’s how busy cabs are tonight! After nearly an hour of waiting, our waitress apologizes profusely for the missing cab ( she’s so sweet, it is not her fault after all ) and after enquiring where we are staying, offers to have a staff member take us back to the resort. Admittedly it is only a 5mn drive to the Hunter Valley Crown Plaza, but in this still abysmal weather, we feel like VIPs enjoying door to door service in the SUV.

I collapse into bed, feeling very full and content, hoping the weather cooperates for our return flight the next morning. Unbeknownst to Mr T I have already negotiated with the resort a possible extended stay in case of bad weather, however we both have different ideas as far as inclement weather goes and where I see grey, low rain clouds he looks for blue gaps to fly thru. So, at the first sign of blue sky, we’re back in the air, bound for home and dreaming of our next visit .

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