Chemistry is key

In the past, I was never a huge fan of the scone.

For most of my life, the scone was an anonymous doughy vehicle for conveying jam and cream into my mouth. Often a bit dry, often a little tart with too much baking powder, frequently too sweet or with superfluous dried fruit, I simply couldn’t raise much enthusiasm for them. And then I came to Australia.

Here, the scone holds an unassailable position in the hearts and minds of the people. A good scone is a point of pride with those who like to bake. Men hold opinions about them, women compete to produce the best, and I’m not talking about the blue rinse brigade, either. It’s a social accomplishment to be able to whip up a batch of tall, fluffy, lightly bronzed lovelies at the drop of a hat. So it was a matter of some embarrassment to admit that actually, I couldn’t make a decent scone.

At school in the early 1970s, we were subjected to scone-torture, and mine were always akin to cannonballs, much more suited to being fired at the enemy with lethal effect. All that rubbing butter into flour, carefully measuring bicarbonate of soda and cream of tartar, mixing the batter with a palette knife and always, always getting the amount of liquid wrong… I gave up on the dratted things and moved on to a lifelong love affair with yeasted dough and all its works. But in recent years I’ve found the fragrant, warm piles of freshly baked scones at my favourite teahouse strangely alluring.

30 seconds later, these looked as if T.Rex had attacked…

So I decided I would not be defeated. In the past few weeks, I have tried multiple recipes and methods and baking temperatures. I have gazed dismayed at dry, crumbly doughs that would not stick together, and horrendously clingy messes that stuck all too well. The Husband has heroically sampled them all, generous with encouragement and feedback. But today, I cracked it. My scones are tall, tender, light and fluffy inside. They split perfectly without a knife, to soak up butter and lavish strawberry jam. They didn’t crumble or cleave to the palate. They were not thick biscuits or thinly disguised rock cakes. They were Proper Scones. True, they could be smoother: my finishing still leaves a little to be desired, and on a couple of them I used the wrong (wavy) side of the cutter instead of the smooth side, but only a purist or a show judge would complain.

Not beautiful, but very yummy 🙂

And now that I can do it properly, I wonder why it took so long for me to attain this important skill. But the title of this post says it all. Chemistry really is the answer. So, the recipe:

3¼ x cups of self-raising flour
1 rounded teaspoon of baking powder
1 cup pouring cream
1 cup fizzy lemonade
1 good pinch of salt

Sieve the flour, salt and baking powder into a mixing bowl. Make a large well in the centre with a spatula. Pour in the cream and lemonade. Cut everything together with the spatula, mixing as little as possible to combine the ingredients. If it’s still very, very sticky, add a smidge more flour. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead no more than 5 times to bring everything together. Flatten gently with your hands until about 2½ cm/1 inch thick. Roll gently across the top with a rolling pin to give a fairly smooth surface. Using a smooth sided 6cm/2½ inch cutter, cut out rounds, pressing down firmly but not twisting the cutter at all. If you twist, you will prevent the scone rising to its full potential. Place onto a sheet of baking paper on a cookie sheet in the top half of a fan forced oven preheated to 200°C/395°F, for about 12 minutes or until the top is lightly browned. Place half of a tea towel on a cooling rack, put the scones on the towel and cover with the other half, which will prevent the outsides drying out and going hard. Wait as long as you can before eating them. They’re best warm.

Makes about 8 man-sized scones or 10 more ladylike ones if you use a slightly smaller cutter.

The Chemistry bit:
Measure the ingredients, don’t eyeball it. The cups I used are standard 250ml metric measuring cups.
Use fresh self raising flour. If it’s too old the raising agents will not activate as well as they do in fresh flour.
The fizzy lemonade contains both citric acid to boost the effect of the cream of tartar in the flour, and carbon dioxide to increase the aeration of the dough.
Don’t over-mix or over-handle the dough, you’ll toughen it.
Don’t twist the cutter, it seals the cut sides and prevents rising. You’ll want to twist. Just don’t.

I’ve tried recipes with butter, with just cream, with egg and with milk. This one is by far the simplest, easiest and most effective. The scones are not sweet, but if you’re going to be adding the traditional toppings, I don’t think sugar is necessary. You get a tiny hint of sweetness from the lemonade.

And now, excuse me please. My scones are getting cold.

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If in doubt, make cookies…

You know those weeks where you’re madly busy, but with absolutely nothing to show for it?

Yup, one of those. Oh, things got done, just nothing much I can post about. Family to stay for 3 days; cooking, cleaning, shopping and other exciting tasks; admin for the annual national motorbike rally we’re organising; and sewing. Where’s that last bit, then? Well, I went on a bit of a scrappy bender and got another four blocks done, but I can’t show them because they’re for ScrapHappy Day. I also can’t post about the F²F³ blocks I made for Sue because she hasn’t received them yet and I don’t want to spoil the surprise (but if you want to take a look, head over to the gallery). So, feeling a bit meh about everything, I made peanut butter cookies. As you do….

Personally, I could eat the whole batch of these babies in one sitting, but being an adult (still a work in progress, I’m afraid), I made an effort and controlled myself. Most of them are still in the container… One of the main things I love about them is that they’re so simple and quick.

Ingredients:

1/2 cup crunchy peanut butter
1/2 cup dark choc chips OR raisins*
1 large egg
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 cup soft dark brown sugar

Put everything in a bowl and beat till well combined. The mixture will be wet, not like dough.

*Personally, I prefer raisins but I’m not allowed to eat them just now, so choc chips it is. And yes, you can have both…

Dollop large teaspoonfuls onto a paper-lined cookie sheet or baking tray. See how I didn’t make two dozen? That’s the self-control working. For two dozen, double the quantities.

Bake at 175°C/350°C till golden brown, about 15-20 mins, depending on your oven. (They’ll still be soft and chewy.)

Slide the paper off the tray and onto a cooling rack. Once the cookies are warm rather than hot, remove from the paper. You can wait till they’re cool, but… why? They’re gluten free, lactose free, and with the choc chips, fructose-free. But I’m making no promises about calories.

So now you can see why it’s important to keep busy. When you’re not, cookies happen 😉

 

Sunshine in a bottle

So, the mandarincello is ready.

After a week of steeping the de-pithed skins in vodka, most of the aromatic volatiles in the skins have migrated into the spirit, giving it a lovely sunny yellow colour and a strong aroma of mandarin.

I made a simple sugar syrup with half a cup of castor (superfine) sugar and half a cup of water, heated gently till the sugar was fully dissolved, and then cooled. I strained the spirit back into the bottle it came in, and then poured out about a quarter cup of the mandarincello to make space for the syrup. At this point, it’s still quite harsh-tasting, with a bitter back-note. Some might like it this way, but I prefer a little more fruity sweetness. So I added a tablespoon of the cooled syrup, shook the bottle gently and then tasted. Not bad, but not quite enough. Another tablespoon, and it was nearly there. So I added a final half tablespoon, and it was spot on. Yum! It both tastes and smells like fresh mandarins.

With the remaining syrup, I added the quarter cup of spirit, to give a mandarin-flavoured syrup with a small amount of alcohol in it. I’ll use this warmed, to pour over a cake, or add lots of soda water and ice for a refreshing drink with only a hint of naughtiness.

Look, give this a try. It’s not rocket science. If you have an excess of lemons, oranges or mandarins, use the skins to make yourself a bottle of sunshine, and in the case of oranges and mandarins, roast the fruit in the oven with a little sugar or honey and water to end up with delicious warm fruit to put on your cereal, yoghurt or icecream. If you don’t grow your own, I’d suggest using organic, non-waxed fruit to avoid adding wax or pesticides to your bottle.

Now, where’s my mandarin cake recipe…?

When life gives you mandarins…

… make mandarincello 🙂

This is not normally something I’d have considered, but I was doing a bit of gentle fruit-one-upmanship on FaceTime with my brother in the UK, who has a substantial temperate fruit and nut orchard, but no tropical fruit. As well as eating them fresh and freezing juice and pulp, we were debating what best to do with the beautiful fruit on my Ponkan mandarin tree. He suggested the mandarin equivalent of limoncello. Bingo! A double reward, the fruit and the skins!

I went to our local bottle-o (off-licence or liquor store for non-Aussies) and asked for the cheapest, nastiest bottle of vodka they had. (Classically, it should be grappa, but that sort of thing is hard to find in rural north Queensland unless you make your own.) After he’d cracked up a little, the bloke behind the counter wanted to know why. Explanations followed, and I could see he was thinking about doing it himself. Spread the joy….

Anyway, one 750cl bottle of vodka later I selected 5 of the largest, most brilliant orange fruit and peeled them carefully. I took a small, sharp knife and scraped as much of the white pith from the back of the peels without pressing too hard as I didn’t want to lose any of the essential oil. The skins went into a large (possibly too large!) spring-top jar, and the vodka went on top. Into a cool, dark place for at least a week.

I couldn’t resist taking a peek yesterday. Look! The vodka is changing colour already as the essential oils in the skin migrate into the spirit. After a week, the colour will be a brilliant orange and the flavour will be intense, but possibly somewhat bitter. I’ll make a simple sugar syrup with white sugar (I don’t want to use brown as it’ll affect the lovely colour) and add as much as the flavour demands. I don’t want sweet, I just want the edge taken off any bitterness to mellow the flavour. And then into a smaller container with a screw top for storage. Possibly the original cheap and nasty bottle, which is quite a pleasing shape.

And in case you were wondering what I did with the fruit originally enclosed by those peels, I roasted them in the oven with a little water and a sprinkling of sugar. They have softened into a delicious tart and tangy sludge which goes beautifully with Greek yoghurt.

I’ll keep you posted on the progress.

Harvest

This year, it’s the turn of our mandarin tree to go bonkers.

Ponkan Mandarin fruit (Citrus reticulata)

It’s not a surprise, really, it’s a variety that’s well known for fruiting in alternate years. Last year, it was the mangoes that cropped spectacularly, but so far they’re showing no sign of flowering. The mandarin tree is smallish and tucked away in the corner, and I hadn’t even noticed flowers on it. A few months ago, I saw a load of dark green marble-sized fruit on it, and briefly thought “woo hoo!” and then promptly forgot about them again, till just a few weeks ago, when the now much larger fruit started to change colour. Usually, we wait till they start to fall of their own accord or the lorikeets start decimating them before we pick the fruit, but so far, there have been only two windfalls and no bird or fruitbat activity, so we decided to get out there and do battle with the green ants for them.

With green ants in the tree (and boy, are they IN the tree!), there’s a technique for picking the fruit without getting bitten a lot. You take a bucket half filled with water, a pair of long handled loppers and a grabby thing (you know what I mean, the doohickey you use for getting things down off high shelves). You grab the fruit with the grabber, cut it off with the loppers and dump it straight in the bucket of water, which drowns any ants silly enough to have come along for the ride. It sounds elaborate, but is a much more pleasurable experience than having the vicious little buggers run off the fruit, up your sleeve and then bite you hard on parts you can’t get at easily. Repeat till the bucket is full of fruit and water. Once in the kitchen, you remove any leaves and stalks, and then toss the water with the ants outside so the insect-eating birds can have a feed.

The fruits are huge for mandarins (my hands are not particularly small), the skins are very loose and easy to peel, and while there are usually half a dozen pips in each one, the flavour and juiciness is so fresh, intense and wonderful that you really don’t care! I’ve been busily looking up recipes for mandarin gelato, I’ll be making my mandarin syrup cake (minus the apricots) the Husband’ll be taking a couple of these to work in his lunchbox each day for a while, and I may freeze some juice and purée for winter consumption.

And that’s only the first crop. We have at least six more to go 🙂

A little less plastic

I’ve been trying to reduce how much plastic I use and then have to throw away.

I do recycle both hard and soft plastics, I don’t use plastic carrier bags in supermarkets, and now, I won’t need to use those flimsy single-use produce bags any more, hurray! I’ve put together a set of netting produce bags in different sizes, with a drawstring top. Washable, light and easy to see through. They can live in my heavy insulated fabric shopping bags. They’ll be getting a test run shortly, and if all is well, I’ll make a batch more.

I had an old roll of mosquito netting which was perfect for this, being stretchy and non-fraying, and there’s still plenty left for more bags, or replacements when these get a bit tired or start falling apart. The drawstrings are shoe laces, and I used a sewing machine stitch which combines a straight line and a zigzag to finish the edges a little – they don’t need it, but I like things tidy 🙂

I got the idea from Celia at Fig Jam & Lime Cordial. She’s a bit of a green superstar and recycling warrior among her many other talents, and her blog is well worth following if you don’t already do so.

Hmm. I think I need some different shapes. Rhubarb, cucumbers, kale, stuff like that…

We’re on the road again

Miz Lizzie is packed, our schedule is planned and printed, and we’re off.

We’re heading north once again, into a fortnight of gastronomic indulgence, experimentation, and purchase. We’ll be staying at two caravan parks we haven’t tried before but which come highly recommended.

Part 1 of the trip is from Mackay to just north of Townsville, at Rollingstone, where the van park has absolute beach frontage. We’ll be there a couple of days. Part 2 is Rollingstone to Redlynch in the north of Cairns, right where the rainforest rolls down to touch the edge of the city. It’s not what we’d call a long trip. To put it in some context, it’s like driving from London to Inverness, or from the bottom of Florida to the top. It’s just far enough that we’re really on holiday, the scenery’s different and yet, it’s not an arduous journey when we have to turn for home. (And despite a recent news story from the US that left Australians giggling, yes, all that is definitely just one country, and by the way, only a bit smaller than yours… 🙂 )

I’ll be photographing, blogging, tasting, sampling, buying, eating, stitching, oohing and aahing. You’re welcome along for the ride. As always with our trips, there’ll be pictures and descriptions. We’re looking forward to it a lot as we’re both a bit tired and ready for a break. It’s been a while since we had a decent chunk of time off – May last year to be exact, when we went down to Nambucca Heads in northern NSW.

And because each road trip needs a sound track, here’s Miz Lizzie’s theme song:

Dizzy Miz Lizzie

(There’s a version with John Lennon and Eric Clapton performing this too, but I prefer the 1958 original)