food beyond compare, food beyond belief…

Another year goes past, another flat Christmas dinner is planned for and cooked and eaten and then reminisced about. Our first was in 2006, before I even had this blog, and when we’d just moved into our then-flat. The second one was the day after the David Beckham game, 2008’s was when I’d finished uni and started full-time work and Emma our then-flatmate was stranded in Thailand. She got back to NZ just fine, by the way, but still. Last year was our first Christmas dinner in our current flat and was also the day that I was on the cover of the Sunday Star-Times Sunday magazine (which meant a lot of “oh this? Oh I had no idea that was on the table there lookatmeeveryone“) This year was a pretty low-key happening, with just seven of us, but it was an amazingly happy day. Partly because of the awesome friends and whanau who were there, and partly because…my first ever Baked Alaska was not a disaster.

I’ve made this Involtini from Nigella Bites for the last three Christmas Dinners and it’s one of the best Christmassy vegetarian recipes I’ve ever found. Basically it is spoonfuls of herbed, nutty cooked bulghur wheat rolled up into parcels with long thin slices of fried eggplant, which are then tucked in to a casserole dish, covered with tomato puree and baked. It’s incredibly good and can be done ages in advance, and while Nigella’s original recipe contains lots of feta, it’s easy enough to make this dairy-free or completely vegan as I did. Pistachios are even prettier than feta anyway…
This year I had the idea that I could cook the eggplant slices quickly in a toasted sandwich press brushed with a little oil. It totally worked! Didn’t look as sexy as Nigella’s glistening griddle-striped slices, but since it’s all getting covered in tomato sauce anyway, I didn’t really care, and it saved me from sweating over a hot oily pan.
The roast chicken was the only thing in the whole damn day that had dairy products in it, and that’s because Ange, our very good friend and ex-flatmate, is vegetarian as well as dairy-free. I poured cream all over the chickens before roasting them, inspired by a recipe of Ruth Pretty’s I read in the 2005 Nov/Dec issue of Cuisine magazine. It felt like an amazingly extreme thing to be doing, plus it made the birds tender, golden and crisp. Notice in the background the boiled potatoes and roasted capsicums…I don’t have the energy to photograph and talk about them individually: just know that they were there too and they tasted great. I didn’t plan for gravy but quickly boiled up the roasting pan juices (there was heaps, was a shame to waste it) with a little flour and, without any white wine to hand, threw in some sake instead. It smelled amazing and tasted just fine too.
(Sorry to keep putting you on the spot Ange) For the first time my favourite stuffing (Cornbread and Cranberry from Nigella’s Feast) was dairy-free, made with rice bran oil (what, you thought margarine? Pffft) and soymilk. Even though I really love the bit where you crumble the already buttery cornbread into a pan of melted butter and cranberries, it was still delicious, and in fact the soymilk made it almost spookily puffy and light-textured. Except I ended up baking it for too long so instead of a soft, moist stuffing it was more like a large savoury biscuit. Eh, still tasted good.
The cranberry sauce! I have to co-sign with Nidge on this one, it really is as redder-than-red as she insists. I didn’t even up the saturation in this photo.
Anyway all that was cool, but The Baked Alaska. Oh my gosh. I always like to use this day as an excuse to try out a challenging new pudding but this one had an element of stage fright to it. (In case you’re wondering, 2006 was Nigella’s Rhubarb and Mascarpone Trifle, 2007 was her Rugelach, 2008 I made her White Chocolate Almond Torte, and last year I did her Chocolate Pavlova.) The cake and ice cream I made in advance but the last bit – whipping up meringue, spreading it over them and blasting it in the oven right before serving had humungous potential for wrongness.
I used a recipe from the Floridita’s cookbook for the base and invented my own coconut-blackberry ripple ice cream for the next layer, partly because I had some blackberries in the freezer already. I know it seems unfair to recommend making your own ice cream when it’s only going to be covered in meringue. But the good thing about it is that without the preservatives and who knows what else that goes into a lot of commercial ice cream it’s way more solid and therefore a bit more forgiving when you shunt it under a blazing oven. I’d argue that it’s much more fun to make your own but that’s just me. I like making ice cream.
The ice cream was made by whisking together 4 egg yolks (the egg whites I put in a plastic container and refrigerated to use, plus two more, for the meringue) and about 150g sugar. I then heated a can of coconut milk without letting it boil, and quickly whisked it into the egg yolk mixture. All of that got returned to the pan and gently heated, while constantly whisking, till it thickened like custard. I stirred in a can of coconut cream and then began to freeze it in a shallow dish (the same one I baked the cake in actually). Then I defrosted about 150g blackberries (you could use any berry really) mashed them with a couple of tablespoons of sugar and the juice of a lemon, and drizzled it into the still-softish ice cream.
Tim took this photo and also put the ice cream and cake on top of each other on the tray while I whisked up the meringue topping. For which I’m seriously grateful, because it only occured to me halfway through making the meringue that I still had to do all that.
I made sure to follow my Nana’s advice to make sure the meringue completely covered the cake and ice cream – it provides a thick blanket of protection which allows the ice cream to survive under the heat, but if it’s not uniformly covered, the ice cream can seep out and then you’ve got a small crisis on your hands. I also followed some last-minute tweeted advice from Martin Bosley about warming up the sugar first before its beaten into the egg whites. It’s not every day that this kind of interaction comes my way so I thought I might as well try it – sat the sugar in a shallow metal bowl in the oven while it was heating up, enough to make the crystals warm but not enough to melt them into syrup. Cannot deny that my meringue whisked up in minutes with more volume and shine than a shampoo commercial.
But it worked, it worked! I felt a rush of happiness and pride just looking at it. Baked Alaska are generally supposed to resemble mountains, mine was admittedly more of a plateau, like a Baked Cape Town Table Top Mountain.
Look at the jelly in the background somehow managing to steal the show with its ruby-glow.
So on top of looking spectacular – like a pudding from a Dr Seuss book, or a Graeme Base book, or let’s face it, a Barbie film adaptation of a classic fairytale – it tasted wonderful too. It’s like having three puddings at once, all compressed into a handy cube. The radicalness of hot meringue against still-frozen ice cream. The sweetness of the topping and the creamy berry-sharp coconut ice cream against the dark cocoa-y cake. Stunning. I may have high-fived myself.
Finally: Cakeballs! So satisfying to say, make and eat. They came about because when I made the cake for the Baked Alaska and tried to turn it out of its tin onto a tray it…broke. Not so much that it couldn’t be more or less patched up, but it did leave me with a significant pile of cake crumbs. I could have eaten the lot in despair, but then I remembered Nigella’s recipe in her Christmas book for “Christmas Puddini Bonbons” aka…cakeballs. Mine were pretty simple – the cake crumbs mixed with about 125g melted chocolate and 2 tablespoons golden syrup before being rolled into balls and drizzled with more dark chocolate. What gave them that superfunk-Christmas look and transformed them from “hastily covered-up mistake” to “incredible bonbons that I will fight you for” was the judicious sprinkling of edible glitter. I’ve walked past the cupcake lady at the City Market nearly every Sunday asking how much her edible glitter is. Finally I decided that it wasn’t even expensive at all especially considering it lasts forever, and bought a small vial of it. Ohhhh how I love it. Had to hold myself back from glittering up the roast chickens.
Tim and I have been living off the leftovers ever since, which I love. We’re going up to my place for Christmas this time next week so we’re trying not to buy too much new food…just using up what’s there. I tell you, there’s nothing like standing at the kitchen bench, wordlessly eating leftover jelly off a plate to bring you closer together. (I grabbed two spoons from the draw, and then was like “Well I’ve got my spoons” like I was going to have one in each hand. Yeah, I gave him one of the spoons. But I think he believed me…I think I believed me for a second.)
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Title via: Les Miserables, Master of the House. Last night Tim and I saw the live recording of the 25th Anniversary Les Mis concert at Embassy Theatre. It was amazing – Norm Lewis (he of the faint-making voice), Lea Salonga, Ramin Karimloo, erm…Nick Jonas (he wasn’t awful per se, anyone would look useless next to Ramin). Matt Lucas of Little Britain was Thenardier, who knew the man could sing so well! I know Les Mis isn’t the height of pop culture awesomeness, especially in this post-Boyle, post-Glee time, but whatever, the music is still incredible, totally unashamed about the tears that appeared during Salonga’s I Dreamed A Dream and Lewis’ Stars.
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Music lately:
I’ve been listening to A Very Little Christmas heaps – it was put together by a whole bunch of local musicians, has some excellent seasonal tunes both original and familiar, and you can download it free, what!
Sideline, a new track from David Dallas with Che Fu. Woohoo! Is all I have to say. Because I’ve spent three days trying to write this blog and my sentence-forming ability is dissolving like sugar in a hot oven…
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Next time: Proper recipes…vegetables…

9 thoughts on “food beyond compare, food beyond belief…

  1. HayleyB says:

    Baked Alaska!! CAKE BALLS!! 😀 Love it! I have been away from your blog far too long! Everything looks amazing! My fave line: “…my meringue whisked up in minutes with more volume and shine than a shampoo commercial” 🙂
    PS. I've always wanted to see Les Miserables live. Quite a fan of the music 🙂

    Like

  2. Hannah says:

    I think I need to move to NZ just so I can beg an invitation to next year's Christmas event. Which I'll have to request is exactly the same as this year's. Bombe Alaska AND cake balls? You are the queen.

    Like

  3. Viv says:

    Laura your baked alaska looks divine! I love that desert -your nana used to make it all the time for birthday parties! (cue spooky music) So sorry we will miss your visit home, and in time for my birthday too 😦 We will catch up in late Feb I hope! In the meantime, have an awesome Christmas!

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  4. Kay says:

    Baked Alaska looks even better than Nana's (hope she doesn't read this…) but I think she would definitely be impressed with your epic version.

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  5. Anonymous says:

    Of course I read the messages!!!! It certainly looks better than mine, it is on chocolate cake for a start. In THOSE days I used to have a sponge as a base. and just an ordinary block of icecream, and boysenberries on top of the icecream. love Nana.

    Like

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