Macaron Musings

October 6, 2013

What can I say, I’ve always wanted to try my hand at making macarons, but for many many reasons I did not get around to it until this weekend. As I explained to my dad while he was intently watching me pipe out my macaron mixture, macarons have a reputation on the internet for being famously impossible, yet ridiculously photogenic. The number of flavour combinatons you can put into a macaron is endless, from normal-sounding sweet flavours like chocolate & caramel, to savoury flavours like olive & beetroot. And then there’s just the outright weird ones, like stout & pretzel, or mushroom macarons. Whatever flavour combination you choose, there is a myriad of tips & tricks online that will give you “foolproof” macarons. When I was researching yesterday to find a good recipe to use, the more recipes I read & the more “tips” I found, the more I thought macarons must have been invented by accident. Really, there’s no way someone would have done all this on purpose. First, you’re meant to use egg whites that have “aged a day”. I can just see some French apprentice chef finding a bowl of eggwhites leftover from some delicious Crème brûlée the day before, and thinking “Sacre bleu! Are these still in here?? I’d better use them in something!” Secondly, I’m assuming macarons were invented long before electric stand mixers, meaning this poor apprentice would have whisked those old eggwhites by hand. And then, realising he still needed to add the icing sugar and almond meal: “Merde!! I’ve just done all that whisking for nothing! Because folding in all the dry ingredients will compress all the air bubbles I just whisked into this meringue making it runny again!” Yeah I followed the instructions for this, but couldn’t really see the point in making meringue runny again. But, it worked, which is “the point” I suppose.

Whole blood oranges

Thirdly, leaving the macarons out on the bench from anywhere between ten minutes to two hours, I can only assume this step was discovered because the apprentice either got distracted doing something else in the kitchen (“Oh look! croque-en-bouche!”) or forgot to turn the oven on. You cannot tell me you have never done this. Its always the very first step in any recipe, but this is what we actually read: “Preheat oven to blah blah blah I just want to get to the exciting stuff like melting chocolate!”

Blood orange halves

Anyway. I made macarons. I don’t really have anything of value to add apart from they’re really not that hard, if you weigh everything out like an obsessive-compulsive, and follow the recipe to the letter. I used this recipe, though it doesn’t make as many macarons as I was expecting, so they turned out a little, er… fluorescent. Yes, Wilton’s colour pastes are quite concentrated. I will double the recipe (or half the colouring) next time around. Additionally I didn’t leave them out on the bench quite long enough (or, I remembered to turn the oven on at the start) so a few of them cracked. Understandably, I didn’t use those in the photos.

Macaron group

These macarons didn’t last long at all. Probably about half an hour after I finished making them. Orange, especially blood orange, is one of my very favourite flavours to use in things, so whenever they’re in season I can’t resist in buying a couple of kilos. I made blood orange curd Friday night (which tastes amazing but wasn’t a very good texture. I used a recipe that includes egg whites, which leaves bits of cooked egg whites in the curd. I could have strained it but…. who can be bothered doing that?) which I used for the buttercream. I have plenty of buttercream left so might have to make another batch of macaron shells to use it up! Something tells me my dad won’t mind one bit.

Macaron pile

More new seedlings

September 29, 2013

This year I have resolved to keep better gardening records of what I planted when, and what works and what doesn’t.

Ok so I know that sowing basil seeds does not work in June, but it does work quite well in September with the aide of some black plastic (recycled from a bag of potting mix) to help keep the soil warm for germination. I have never grown basil from seed before – in fact this is only the second time ever that I’m growing it at home. I know, what kind of Italian am I?! I just had it in my head that herbs are more fussy to grow than fruit or vegetables but I’m slowly getting that out of my head – last night I picked a bunch of thyme, rosemary and oregano to put in some chicken cacciatore I made, the freshness really brought the dish to life. I am hoping I can grow enough basil to make pesto at least once. But I have a long way to go before that happens:

Basil seedlings

I have these in a large terracotta pot, mainly because I wasn’t using it for anything else, and I thought the bright green basil leaves would look “so mediterranean!” in the terracotta.

The other thing I have learned is that the BIRDS (the same BIRDS that drove me to install netting over my veggie patch) love pea seeds so much that they will actually dig out my sweet pea seeds from the ground no less than 10 minutes after being sown. So, I took extreme measures and sowed them in an old 3″ pot and tucked them in my veggie patch for protection. Two weeks later they had sprouted and were ready for transplanting.

Pea sprouts

I wanted to post this photo because when I upended the pot, even though the leaves have barely even started to unfurl, the roots had already reached the bottom of the pot & started circling around looking for some place to go. Seeds will never stop amazing me!

And with the (slightly) warmer weather this has brought out my pear & apple blossoms which I can’t stop taking photos of. Apple blossoms are just so photogenic! No idea what the apples are going to be like, but I’ll try my best to protect them from the birds and codling moth so I can at least get some apples.

Apple blossom

A Crème brûlée of Loveliness

September 22, 2013

I would find it very difficult to find anyone I know who hasn’t had Crème brûlée for dessert at a nice restaurant. It really is the perfect end to the perfect meal. Smooth creamy custard, crisp caramelised shell, the soft sweetness of the vanilla draws you in for more with every mouthful.

Creme brulee 3

I’ve only made this dessert a couple of times, but really once you’ve mastered it there’s no going back. I’m not going to post a recipe here, because there are SO many out there, but this is the one I use. What I will post here however are some tips to help your Crème brûlées be as be as perfect as the restaurants without having to go anywhere.

Creme brulee 2

1) Use normal cream. Normal, fresh, unthickened cream. Here in Australia I search high & low for Farmer’s Union Pure Cream, because its pretty much the only whipping cream supermarkets stock without thickener in it.

2) Custard is very sensitive to temperature, so you want to ensure the most even heating possible while its cooking. Fold up an old tea towel & place this underneath your ramekins before pouring the water in, it will protect the bottom of the custard from overcooking. Additionally, most recipes say to pour water til halfway up the ramekins, I tend to go a little higher, about three quarters.

3) When you pour the uncooked custard into the ramekins, there will be air bubbles from whisking it earlier. Grab your lit blowtorch and skim it very quickly over the surface of the custard, it will burst all the bubbles leaving a nice clean smooth surface.

Creme out of the oven

4) When you are ready to brûlée the top, use demerara sugar. It has large grains which melt and coat the custard beautifully. To get it on in an even layer for caramelising, spoon enough sugar into the ramekin to coat it thickly, pressing it down very gently with the back of the spoon. Then, tip the excess sugar out into a bowl leaving a perfect amount of sugar ready for the blowtorch.

Blow torch brulee

5) Don’t hold the blowtorch too close to the ramekin, or it will burn instead of melt.

6) Make in advance, host a dinner party and impress your friends with this simple dessert :-)

Creme brulee mouthful

An ode to Mizuna

September 21, 2013

I believe in good home grown nutrition… but I also believe that what you put on your plate should be as aesthetically pleasing as it is tasty. This is mainly what drove me to try Mizuna seeds back in June when I was shopping on diggers.com.au for my future salad crops.

I had always seen Mizuna in mesclun salad mixes at markets and on my plate in restaurants, but never thought about trying to grow it until this year. I wish I had started earlier! Its just about the perfect green vegetable – you can eat it fresh in salads, sauteed with chorizo & tossed though fresh linguine, added to spicy stir fries or blended into a tangy version of pesto. So much potential in one little plant! And of course, its soooo prettyyyy.

Adding to this is the fact its one of those “cut & come again” wonderplants that you can start harvesting 6 weeks from germination, and its pretty much earned a permanent spot on my salad bowl rotation in the garden.

Here was my Mizuna patch first thing this morning:

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I decided to pull out a couple of the green plants to make some room for the one lettuce and carrots that are sharing the space, and I couldn’t stop taking photos of it:

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These Mizuna plants, paired with some rocket, went spectacularly with some spinach & ricotta cannelloni. Yum!

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On garden protection

September 14, 2013

When I moved from Hobart to Melbourne last year, I knew I would have had to make a lot of adjustments to the way I was used to gardening further south. The climate, the soil, pests & diseases, and availability of products will all play a part in how my veggie gardening will evolve over the next few years.

The first thing I have had to get used to is my sandy beachside soil. While this was advantageous in how easy it is to dig in & work with, as the weather gets warmer I am noticing more & more how a warm breeze can dry out the top layer of soil very quickly. I have already dug in several bags of cow manure and compost, but last weekend I took the plunge and bought some fine pine bark mulch from my local hardware shop. I noticed the plants no longer get droopy when its warm & breezy, and they already seem to be loving the extra nutrients this will add to the soil structure.

For my veggie patch, I also bought some pea straw to add an extra layer of insulation against water loss. So all around my seedlings and full grown salad veggies I put a layer of pea straw down & then a layer of fine pine bark mulch. The veggies have loved it! The carrots are at least twice as bushy as when I showed them on the 31st, and the mizuna and rocket have stayed fresh & perky all week. The birds however have also been enjoying the pea straw.

Birds. I have never had to deal with birds my entire gardening life. I was quite taken aback by the determination of these birds to scratch through every ounce of pea straw to find the leftover pea seeds and bury my tiny lettuce & dill seedlings in the process. What to do?!?

As you might have seen from the photos, I already have chicken wire around the seedling beds to keep my cats from digging them up. But I didn’t have any spare mesh to put on the tops of the cages as well. So I went rummaging in my shed in desperation one afternoon and dug up my veggie nets I bought for an entirely different set of pests (insect pests such as fruit fly & cabbage moth) and hastily draped one over my mesh cages and secured it down with clothes pegs. Its not pretty – but it works!

Garden covers

These veggie nets only block out 15% of the sunlight and still let the water and air through so they’re pretty good in my opinion. And I am happy to report the birds have stayed well away from the pea straw since I put it up!

And even though the pea straw is now all mixed in with the mulch instead of them being two nice neat layers, the plants don’t seem to know the difference. All the lettuce seedlings (2 weeks old now) have their first set of true leaves. I don’t think I’ve ever been this excited about lettuce as this year – I want to spend the whole summer eating home grown salads!

Baby cos lettuce seedlings

The mizuna also have their true leaves now, and the dill and coriander are not far behind.

Here is the “mature” side of the veggie patch:

Garden sept 14

I have harvested 2 lots of rocket this week and they aren’t showing any signs of slowing down yet, though just to be on the safe side I sowed another row of them this afternoon. If I can salvage some of the lettuce seedlings that are growing way too close together, I will fill out some of the gaps here with lettuce, because you can’t have too much lettuce.

I also sowed a row of beans today, a dwarf variety called Stringless Pioneer. I love beans, I hope they really do yield 500grams per plant, I’ll be in heaven even though I only have space for 1 row. I also want to sow some more carrots somewhere, as they take so long to mature I want to at least attempt to have a somewhat rotating carrot crop.

I’ll end tonight’s post with another poppy photo, they are just so cheerful.

photo 1(2)

First harvest!

September 3, 2013

Just a quick post to show y’all my first decent harvest from my new garden!! Delicious rocket & mizuna:

Lettuce

You can see the red mizuna a lot better in this photo than the “in garden” photos. They have the most gorgeous colour and lacey appearance.

And here are some yummy peppery radishes:

Radishes in bowl

A couple of them had split from the high rainfall but they were still delicious and made the perfect side salad for my lasagne!

Another Garden Update

August 31, 2013

Well, its been exactly 8 weeks since these seeds were sown and I must admit I have harvested a bit too, last weekend! The mizuna and rocket have grown enough to harvest for one salad at a time, and are very nice indeed at this time of year, because as of tomorrow (!!!!) its going to be Spring! I don’t think I’ve been as excited about Spring as I am this year, mainly because I have my own garden again after 13 months of renting, and also this is the first garden I’ve ever had in sunny Melbourne. Speaking of sunny, we got up to around 23°C today which was really so restorative after the mostly-rainy week we had, and a wonderful reminder that Spring is literally only one day away.

Anyway. So tomorrow I am planning to make a (healthy) lasagna and have a salad of rocket, mizuna, & radishes on the side. Check them out:

Rocket 2

The rocket is actually starting to look like rocket, with its characteristic lobed leaves. And here’s the mizuna:

Mizuna 2

The red mizuna doesn’t show very well against the dark soil but its definitely there… perhaps if I remember tomorrow I’ll take a photo of the salad on the plate!

The spinach will hopefully be ready for harvesting in the next few weeks too… or I might have to take some microgreens because I seem to have a problem with spacing:

Spinach 2

And the carrots, while still a couple of months away from harvesting, are getting bushy by the day:

Carrots 2

And just for something different, there is some fruit planted in my garden as well, these strawberries are planted along the front edge of where the veggies are growing:

Strawberry leaves

And remember the poppies & snapdragons I planted way back when? The poppies have been loving the rainy weather, and have just started blooming this week:

Poppy

I’m going to save the seeds from these yellow ones, I just love them!

Last weekend, I planted another round of seeds: Mizuna, chives, dill, coriander, mignonette lettuce, baby cos lettuce, and two rows of Italian “Lollo” lettuce which are an especially ruffled variety that comes in both red & green. To my surprise a lot of the lettuce seedlings have already sprouted. Lettuce seedlings really do start out as the tiniest seedlings ever, I can see why many gardeners  prefer to buy them as seedlings. But I am yet to find a range of lettuce as good as on Diggers or Eden Seeds in any nursery or garden centre. Besides, you buy a packet of seeds for half the price of a punnet of seedlings, they keep for years, and you can grow between 200 & 350 lettuces from each packet! Now that’s what I call value. I’m sure these tiny seedlings will get bigger by next weekend, as its going to be a warm and sunny week if the weather report is not lying to me!

Lettuce seedlings

Yes I do have a problem with spacing. I might try (more experimenting!) to transplant some to elsewhere in the garden once they’ve got their first set of true leaves.

I wasn’t the only one enjoying the sun today, my two cats were also thawing out outside with me today. Here is my old lady cat Puss laying next to a pot of Liliums which have also shot up over the last week. Its all starting to happen! So exciting :-)

Puddy cat

Garden Update

August 3, 2013

Well, almost 5 weeks to the day have passed since I direct sowed a bunch of seeds in one of my new garden beds. I thought you’d like to see the progress of the seeds so far:

Clockwise from left: Arugula, Mizuna, Radishes, Spinach

Clockwise from left: Arugula, Mizuna, Radishes, Spinach

As well as the radishes & carrots (not pictured – they are still pretty small) in my tutorial, I also sowed spinach, arugula (rocket), mizuna, and basil. Everything has sprouted now except for the basil – I suspect the soil it possibly still too cold for the basil to germinate. Still learning new things even after 10 years of gardening!

So far I am most impressed with the rocket, I’ve never grown it before so I didn’t know what to expect. But the germination rate is quite high, the growth is lush and quick, I’ll be harvesting some for a salad or three within a few weeks!

Another new-to-me crop is mizuna, which is often found in mesclun mixes at greengrocers. I don’t want to spoil any future blog posts, but its one of the prettiest salad crops you can grow.

Radishes have been a mainstay of my Spring gardens over the years, there’s pretty much no other vegetable that gets me in the mood for fresh zesty salads grown at home that grows almost as quick as I can eat them. And the spinach, while I have grown it before, I haven’t ever grown it from seed, so that was another good learning experience. The seeds are large and gnarled-looking, and the seedlings can only be described as looking like oversized carrot seedlings – but thankfully with the emergence of their first true leaves I can see they are definitely not carrots after all. The spinach should grow rapidly if we have a moist spring.

Apart from the basil, I’ve very pleased of the progress of my seedlings! Not in the picture are 3 rows of carrot seedlings, and a somewhat sparse crop of brown onion seedlings (well there are actually quite a few seedlings but the seed leaf is so fine they are quite hard for me to see!), and a few oak leaf lettuce seedlings that are not enjoying the cold weather so much, I will sow more when it starts to warm up.

I am so impatient for the warm weather to come! At the moment I will have to be content in watching these little seedlings grow.

Mini tutorial – Direct Sowing

June 30, 2013

Ever since I started gardening, I didn’t have any preconceptions on what was difficult or what was easy. I simply tried different techniques, kept notes as to what worked & what didn’t, and learned vegetable growing that way. When I chose what vegetables I wanted to grow, I bought seeds because they were cheaper, and because I could find varieties I couldn’t find at nurseries as seedlings. Once again, I tried out different techniques and with a help of a garden journal, eventually worked out the best sowing and harvesting times for my climate. But now I’m in a new climate which will hopefully work in my favour as the growing season should be longer, but Victoria comes with its own set of challenges – possums, fruit fly, foxes, rainbow lorikeets, fruitbats, all potentially crop-destroying pests that are uncommon or non-existent in Tasmania. So thus begins the experimentation again – and since I have this online garden journal, you can all learn along with me!

So, back to seeds. When I first started buying seeds, I admit I struggled to get them to germinate & get them to the seedling size that you see in nurseries. I tried several things – sowing them in punnets, sowing them in pots, regular potting mix, seedling mix, having them inside, having them outside etc etc etc…. After all that I ditched the punnets & potting mix altogether and realised I got much better results sowing them directly where they are going to grow. The larger the area of soil, the easier it is to control the moisture levels, and depending on the time of year, it can be easier to keep the seeds at a consistent temperature. Direct sowing has meant I could grow seeds that have a difficult reputation, like parsnips, cauliflower, & tomatoes.

So, the first step is to make a garden, which is what I’ve been doing for the last few weeks. Find some men who will help you:

photo 2

Since I made my garden beds where there was previously lawn, after the men broke up the soil (thanks Dad & Adrian!) we sieved the soil so there was no grass roots, stones, or other things (we found glass, tent pegs, batteries & broken plates!) to get in the way of my crops. This process also aerates the soil making it the ideal environment for plant roots, earthworms, and good microbes.

Once you have removed all the bits, you have something like this:

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Take a plank of wood (you can see the one I use in the photos) and use it to make the final smoothing of the soil surface:

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Then, give the whole bed a good soaking of water. I know I have well draining soil at the moment, but I will have to build up the organic matter in the future for better water retention in the summer months.

Next, take some kind of thin pole or slat to make your trenches for your seeds. I have a bunch of old blind slats that are perfect for this purpose. Simply push the soil apart with the slat a few millimeters, the depth will depend on what you’re sowing, and your seed packet should have a guide for this. Additionally, the crops I sowed today only need about 20cm between the rows, but some veggies need a lot more – full sized cauliflowers for example will need about 60cm to themselves.

IMG_0958

Sowing in rows makes sense for several reasons – number one because its easiest to sprinkle seeds in a straight line, and another reason is when all the seeds sprout in a line, any sprouts that aren’t in line can be identified as weed seeds & are safe to pull out.

And now for the vital ingredient, the seeds! Today I sowed super-easy radishes:

Radish seeds copy

And easy but slower to mature carrots:

IMG_0960

The radishes are easy to sow, about 10cm apart. The carrots though, because the seeds are so fine, are hard to get even. Sow them a little thicker than you need & thin the crop in 6-8 weeks, leaving the strongest to grow on.

When they are all in the ground, pinch the soil with your fingers to close the trenches & give the whole lot a good watering.

Now that they are in, you need to protect the seeds from the cold/heat, weather, animals, snails, and most importantly from drying out. I use various methods for doing this, including old pieces of bubblewrap, hessian bags, clear plastic, and today I used rectangular clear plastic domes that are sold as “propagating domes” at hardware shops. 4 of these domes covered these seeds nicely, and I held them in place using thick wire bent into mini tent pegs.

After that the waiting game begins…. The radishes will only take about a week to sprout, the carrots can take up to 3 weeks. This is why a protective layer is so important, because any drying during this time will quickly kill any newly germinated seeds.

That’s all for now – the snapdragons are getting bigger, spring doesn’t seem so far away!

Seedlings

New house, new garden!

June 16, 2013

Well! Its been a while hasn’t it!!! A lot has happened since I last wrote.

Firstly, I moved house. Not only that, I moved states. And got a job, and bought a house of my very own in the lovely suburb of Seaford in southern Melbourne.

So that was a bit of awesomeness, and I celebrated my first anniversary here last month, and that first 12 months went so fast!

Another pretty lifechanging event was my breakup in early March… not much to say about that really but “onwards & upwards”!

So I bought a house. Its mine. I have an encyclopedia of to-do lists and renovating plans and decorating ideas but this is what I started with:

house before

Neat overall, but does need some work, mainly a lot of painting & some TLC inside.

Since this photo was taken I’ve painted the gutters, fascias, gates & vent grates a rich brick red. I’ve sanded the window frames ready to paint them white. I’ve bought almost everything I need for my luxurious new bathroom, which will be installed in August. And! I’ve got ducted gas heating installed so the place is no longer a fridge!

Also and! Check out my back yard:

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(Scuse the washing on the lines)

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So much space! So much potential!

The trees are one huge and very neglected pear tree, and two neglected but manageable apple trees. I’m going to attempt to prune at least part of the pear tree to hopefully get it productive again, but I’m not going to rule out getting rid of all the fruit trees and planting new ones, with the advantage of knowing what varieties I’d be planting and pruning them to a nice shape from the start.

So, the work on the garden began today with a smallish garden bed against one of the fences:

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The soil here is lovely sandy loam (I’m only 1km from the beach) which I sifted to make sure all the grass roots were removed. Hard work, but well worth it, because now the soil is nicely aerated & smooth, ready for its new inhabitants!

I planted my first flowers, a bulk pack of tall Snapdragons:

mosaic3e994a68c9011d4418cedbbed6c2874460dac21b

I have learned that Snapdragons take much more time to get big enough to flower, so planting them in Winter means they’ll be ready to bloom in late Spring.

Next weekend I’ll be digging & sifting more of the grass out of the remaining dug-up soil, and maybe think about planting something edible like spinach and herbs.

I have a feeling this Summer will be the best Summer ever!


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