"A person cooking is a person giving: Even the simplest food is a gift."

Laurie Colwin

Sunday, July 31, 2011

The sushi birthday cake

Who are these people that can cook an entire four-course dinner and take photographs as they go so that they can blog about it later?  Do they actually keep family and friends waiting for their food, or are there no friends and family and they just cooked the dinner for the purpose of blogging about it?  What happens to the quality of the dishes while they’re waiting to the photographed?  And what happens to the dishes that have been photographed: do they get eaten, or thrown away?  I don’t know the answer to any of these questions.  I do know, however, that some people are supremely organised, and some have photographic setups - and even photographers - on standby.  Personally, I just can’t do it.  At least, not when I’m in charge of a multi-course dinner.  I only cook to feed, and when there’s more than one course, even the most simple, fuss-free dinner acquires a sense of urgency and timing:  not just timing in the cooking, but dishes have to be served at their peak, and staggering the service is a particular art.  You have to catch diners not too early when they’re still savouring a previous dish, when they’re ready for the next course, but not desperate.

At any rate, even without all these considerations I wonder if I’d be able to manage it because at my house, as soon as a dish is ready, FOOM!  It disappears.

As happened with my son’s birthday dinner which included mussels done two ways - with miso béchamel and lup cheung - a birthday sushi “cake”, Chinese-style roast duckling with rice and sesame-dressed greens, and an île flottante.  Pictures?  Not a chance.  At least, except for one item, when my sister restrained my knife-wielding hand:  “Wait!  Get a picture of it first!”

The item in question was Runny’s chirashi-sushi birthday cake, which I’ve posted about before.  Much as I loved the idea of the chirashi-sushi ("scattered sushi") cake, I was a little whelmed by my results, so was quite unprepared for the reception it got.  Guests were totally entranced by it, and what’s more, absolutely devoured it - even the two sushi-hating diners sitting at the table.  It’s certainly a fun, friendly way to serve sushi, and certainly right up the alley of someone like my son, who loves sushi, and isn’t particularly fussed about sweets and will consider a chocolate cake a waste of time.

I had to adapt the ingredients somewhat, but it was still a hit:  one of those simple dishes that provide far more reward than effort - and expense - extended.

I’ve also provided the recipe for the mussels, because dammit, they were good.  Each and every single one of four kilos of the things disappeared, and that tells you more than any picture ever could.

(8 servings)
You may have made sushi rice before, but I’ve included the instructions nonetheless.  You’ll need to have a fan on standby.  A ladylike hand fan will do, but if you want to avoid the impulse to scream uncontrollably after a few minutes, an electric one is the thing.  You can have all the toppings ready and make the sushi rice cake base up to a few hours ahead, but assemble cake just before serving.  I promise - it’s quick!


For the sushi rice -
1 1/2 cups sushi or medium-grain rice
2 cups water
3 tbsp. (45ml) rice vinegar
2 tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt

To fill and top cake -
3 eggs
soy sauce, to taste
Top (ie. green) from 1 spring onion
1 tbsp. bonito flakes
beet juice, as needed (unless you’re Jenny Kee, I can’t imagine you needing more than 1 tsp)
95g. tin Japanese-style tuna, drained and broken up with a fork
50g. salmon roe
100g. smoked salmon
1/2 sheet roasted nori

What you do:
1.  Wash rice in several changes of water until water runs clear.  Add 2 cups water, and cook in rice cooker or covered saucepan on stovetop until rice is tender and water is absorbed.  While rice is cooking, combine rice vinegar, sugar and salt, and stir until sugar and salt are dissolved.  Turn rice out into a shallow bowl, and stir with a rice paddle while sprinkling with vinegar dressing.  Keep stirring with rice paddle while simultaneously fanning rice.  This quick cool-down and stirring gives you the essential texture and glossiness.  Set aside.
2.  Whisk eggs and season to taste with soy sauce.  Scramble eggs in a greased pan over medium-high heat until dry and fluffy.  Set aside.  Cut spring onion green into eight long, very thin strips.  Place in a bowl of ice water to curl and crisp.     
3.  Line a 15cm loose-bottomed cake tin with plastic wrap.  Divide rice in two.  Into the first half, mix 1 tbsp. bonito flakes and enough beet juice to tint rice a delicate pink.  Spoon into cake tin, pressing down well with a spoon.  Mix remaining rice with tuna, and spoon on top of pink rice, pressing down as before.
4.  Now it’s time for the fun stuff:  assembling the cake.  Unmould sushi rice onto a serving dish.  Cover surface with scrambled eggs.  Spoon salmon roe onto scrambled egg.  Spread out to form a circle, leaving a 2.5cm edge all around.  Cut smoked salmon into eight strips and roll each one into a “rose”.  Arrange on edge of cake.  Decorate with spring onion curls as desired.  Cut nori into two strips, then cut each strip into triangles.  Press triangles onto side of cake.  Serve immediately.

Mussels can be cooked and topped with filling up to a day ahead.  By the way, I don't make béchamel sauce on the stovetop any more; the microwave method isn't quicker, but it is almost "hands free", leaving you free to do stuff other than standing and stirring.  And stirring.  And stirring.  And stirring.

4 kg. mussels
Chinese cooking wine (opt.)

For miso béchamel:
50g. butter
3 tbsp. flour
400ml milk
2 heaped tbsp. brown miso

For lup cheung filling:
2 rashers middle bacon (200g. approx), very finely chopped
1 lup cheung sausage, very finely chopped
1/2 red pepper (capsicum), very finely chopped
1 spring onion, very finely chopped
1 tsp. minced garlic
1 tsp. minced ginger
1 tsp. red wine vinegar

What you do:
1.  Put mussels in a large pot with enough water or Chinese cooking wine to cover base.  Jam lid on and cook over high heat until mussels are open – about 5 minutes.  (Contrary to popular belief, if your mussels were fresh and live to begin with, an unopened mussel isn’t dead, it just has a strong abductor muscle.  Simply slip a knife in and gently prise it open.)  Carefully lift out mussels one at a time.  Detach shell half not holding the mussel and discard.  Now for the hateful bit:  with kitchen scissors, snip the beard off each mussel.  Grah.  But it has to be done.  Set aside.
2.  To make miso béchamel, place butter in microwave-proof bowl, and microwave until melted.  Whisk in flour, and microwave on HIGH for 1 minute.  Whisk in milk.  Microwave on HIGH, whisking every two minutes, until sauce boils and thickens.  Place miso in a small bowl.  Add a few tablespoons of hot béchamel, and stir to dissolve miso.  Add this mixture to béchamel, and whisk until smooth.
3.  To make lup cheung filling, place all ingredients in a small, greased frying pan.  Sauté until vegetables are crisp-tender.  Remove from heat, and stir in vinegar.
4.  Preheat oven to 250oC.  Top half of mussels with teaspoonsful of miso béchamel, and half with teaspoonsful of lup cheung filling, and arrange on baking dishes.  Bake until miso béchamel is bubbling, and sausage filling is sizzling and beginning to brown - 5-10 minutes.  Serve immediately.


Monday, July 18, 2011

Tarty Tuesdays: bacon, apple, and Tasmanian Blue pie

Yes, I have been writing, and yes, I have been cooking, but I have not been writing about cooking.  It’s been a while, but I’ve been busy, even if some of my endeavours have been… shall we say… frivolous.

Japanese-style potato salad with a garnish that made strange but perfect sense.

Although I was dragged kicking and screaming back into the training kitchen at work, I was delighted to suddenly remember that teaching people how to cook means I can now buy cooking-related stuff for teaching resources and claim it on my tax.  So yes, OK, I bought a gadget that turns a boiled egg into a bunny, but I’ve also been buying things that are entirely useful.

Let me introduce you to Harold.

Harold – or, as it is properly known, the Harold Pie Crust Maker – has come into my life to end another cooking-related bane:  Rolling Pastry Into a Perfect Circle.

'Allo, 'Arold!

Oh, it’s a pain.  Not just the mess – mess I can cope with, as befits a woman who has messed up her kitchen doing everything from shucking 200 corn cobs for freezing to making her own tofu every week – but getting the circle right, without tearing-and-patching, without wonky bits, and without having to trim.  Harold puts an end to all that.  Pop your ball of pastry or dough in the floured bag, zip ‘er up, and roll away.  A minute or two later, you have your perfect circle.  Last week when I was on holidays and playing Happy Hausfrau and making stuff to pop in the freezer, I made five 35cm crusts in 15 minutes, which included the time spent making the pastry.

I took two of them out today, and set about making an awesome vehicle for the Heritage Blue cheese that had reached peak ripeness and wouldn’t see another few days.  I remembered, back in the 80s, making an apple, bacon and blue cheese tart out of Australian Gourmet (before it wedded Traveller), but I couldn’t be fizzed leafing through back issues, so I just decided to make it up as went along.  

Just before the tossing the bacon back in the pan.  Tossing things together for a minute or so over a higher heat is what Marcella Hazan calls "insaporire" - "make tasty".  It's almost always a good idea to toss things with the sautéed aromatics before going ahead with the recipe.

Blurry pic, but it's clear just how delicious this is going to be.  See the little fresh thyme leaves?  Doesn't it make you wanna go out and plant some herbs?  Well, it should.  No, really:  YOU SHOULD.

Then along came my professional photographer husband and took the only good picture of the batch.  Sigh...
Anyway, if your filling is too thick to pour, you can slacken it with milk, but just a tad.  A couple tablespoons to a quarter cup, tops.

It was a tight fit, so I didn't crimp together top and bottom.  The pie held together fine, and had extra give which was awesome since the filling had a soufflé thing going on and rose quite high during baking.  It fell dramatically when I took it out of the oven, but it's still higher than it started out.

Because as you know, you don’t really need a recipe to make a tart.  For that same reason, I'll also tell you that this pie is also very, very delicious made with pears, or pears and apples half-and-half.


250g. bacon, cut into thin strips
1 onion, thinly sliced
2 stalks celery, finely chopped
2 apples, peeled and finely chopped
Fresh thyme
140g. Tasmanian blue cheese, such as Heritage, or other smooth and rounded blue cheese (stay away from the harsh Danish stuff)
4 eggs
300ml. sour cream
Freshly ground pepper
2 x recipe Nidia's Tart Crust, or enough shortcrust pastry for a double crust
2 tbsp. dried breadcrumbs or flour (opt.)

What you do:
1.  Preheat oven to 180oC.  Grease tart pan or brush with Baker's Secret.  Lightly oil a heavy sauté pan.  Cook bacon over low heat until it is soft and fat has rendered out.  Do not allow to crisp.  Remove with a slotted spoon and set aside.
2.  In same pan, sweat onion, celery and apples until tender but not mushy.  Add bacon and thyme, and toss over medium heat for a minute or so.
3.  In a medium bowl, mash blue cheese, then add eggs, sour cream, and freshly-ground pepper to taste.  Combine well.
4.  Line tart pan with crust, and sprinkle with breadcrumbs or flour.  (This step is optional, but you may want to consider it since the filling can get juicy due to variables in the bacon and the fruit.)  Spoon in bacon mixture and spread evenly.  Pour over blue cheese mixture, spreading it as evenly as you can.  Top with second crust.  Brush with eggwash, and bake until crust is golden and filling is set.  

Yumbo McGillicutty!