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Plastic Free Cookery: Nice bit o’ cheese (and crackers)

Despite my devotion to Sunday Baking, I actually far prefer savoury options, and especially cheese. The cheese is even better when it comes atop a cracker, but both are regular sources of plastic in my rubbish bin, and that’s something I would like to change.

Cheese came to New Zealand with the European settlers, who had strong cheese cultures at home. Cheese is an excellent way to preserve milk, and is portable, long-lasting, a source of protein, fat and calcium. Predating human history, cheese’s origins are a bit of a mystery (like many things food), but a study of trace fatty residues on Croatian pottery that may indicate that they were used to strain curds from whey, or to store fermented milk (source: academic & approachable). There’s arguments about the study, but as similar findings dating back to Neolithic times illustrate: cheese has been around a long, long time.

Organic residues preserved in pottery vessels have provided direct evidence for early milk use in the Neolithic period in the Near East and south-eastern Europe, north Africa, Denmark and the British Isles

As Europeans migrated to New Zealand they brought their cheese with them: This advert from 1840 advertises a rage of imported goods, including vinegar, mustard, pickles and cheese.

An early advert for a shipment of food, including cheese. New Zealand Gazette and Wellington Spectator, 18 April 1840

A cursory search for New Zealand cheese history brings up claiming that brie and camembert have been made in New Zealand experimentally since 1911, and with successful commercial production from the 70s. And apparently New Zealand’s first blue cheese was made in Taranaki in 1951, but this is not backed up in the post so I take it with a pinch of salt.

I’ve made cheese once before, in a blue cheese making class under the watchful eye of an expert. Thanks to the post-lockdown hangover, there were no classes running nearby, so I pulled out my copy of Curd & Crust by Tamara Newing and decided to have a go myself. I won’t supply a cheese recipe here as I am not an expert in cheese making, but hey, did I have fun!

The cheese is aging in our fermentation fridge – usually reserved for beer – and sadly isn’t quite ready for eating, after the steriliser I used on my hands inhibited the mould growth on the edges as I turned the cheese. I also salted it too much (left it too long in the brine), so it’s saltier than camembert or brie you’d fins in the shops, and also firmer. Therefore, I would like to announce that I have made fetambert – a salty cheese with a white mould. You read it here first, folks.

A gratuitous mould shot. Look at that fluff!

I also had a try at crackers, making some under the sweet name Crickle Crackle” from The Victoria League of Auckland’s 5th edition of Tried Recipes. These were simple, plain crackers with an easy-to-handle dough. Rather than roll them into disks as suggested, I rolled larger portions of the dough out and cut into haphazard squares with a ravioli cutter.

I’m yet to try making them with cheese in the mix, but they wold be yummy with cheese added, or some minced garlic and sprinkled with salt. I lost count of how many I made, but there were over 50 of them, which sat happily for the two weeks they lasted in an air-tight container and some recycled silica sachets to help prevent them from going stale.

And so here we are: at the end of Plastic Free July. I didn’t get through perfectly, but it’s freshened my awareness of the pervsiveness of plastic, and how satisfying and tasty it is to make your favourite foods from scratch. Chips are now a treat, pasta isn’t intimidating but relaxing, and I’m planning on making more cheese this weekend. Challenges like this are good: they remind you that even in this age of convenience it is possible to make do and mend, and that you actually can make what’s now industrialised. And that has to be a very good thing.

Sunday Baking: Leek Pie

Leeks are a fabulous vegetable that is part of the onion family, popular in Ancient Egypt, Rome and Mesopotamia. They’re one of the National emblems of Wales, and it turns out they make a darn good pie. I’ve been going for sweet the last few Sundays, but baking can also be savoury!

This week’s recipe comes from the 1963 of the British compilation cookbook Farmhouse Fare, which contains all recipes that had been published in the earlier editions of the book, which was so popular in England that it sold out each time it was printed in 1935, 1946 and 1947. Containing recipes from farmhouse kitchens across the UK, former editor Mary Day wrote that “there could be no more eloquent tribute to the traditional cookery of our own country”.

Recipe for Leek Pie, Farmer’s Fare, 1963.

Kiwi leeks are enormous, but not as large as the quantity requested in the recipe – naively, I thought one big leek would be enough, but that only was a pound’s worth. In sheer laziness I added a big onion to the pot to boil, as they are from the same family. I also doubled the amount of egg and cream, making something not quite what Mrs Tremayne did, but a delicious pie nonetheless that’s perfect for lunch or a light supper.

I did make a seconf version of the leek pie following the recipe, but it actually was’t as good as the version in the book – a little too leeky, and not as complex. This is the version I recommend:

Leek Pie done wrong

  • 400-500 g Leek
  • 200g onion
  • 225g cream
  • 100g sweet-cure bacon
  • 4 large eggs

Chop the leeks into half-rounds about 2cm wide, and roughly chop the onion. Boil until tender, which will take less than 5 minutes. Drain the veg, and leave it to cool. Whisk together the cream and eggs, add the chopped bacon and season with a pinch of salt and pepper. Once the leek is cool enough to touch, mix it in with the egg mixture in a pie dish. Top with some shortcrust pastry – I used this recipe from the BBC – brush with milk, and bake at 180° Celsius for about half an hour to 40 minutes.

The pie will puff up during baking, bulging and bronze in the oven. Leave it to cool a little before serving. We also found it was excellent for lunch or even as a hurried breakfast in the days that followed, and was particularly good with a dollop of chutney on the side.

Sunday Baking: Harmony Tarts & Louise Cake

Pastry, jam and sweet coconutty meringue: could you resist?

I started off my Sunday baking with a plan to make ‘Harmony Tarts’: sweet little treats from the NZ Women’s Institutes Tried Recipes for the sole reason that I couldn’t resist the name. But as I baked, I had a hunch that these were eerily similar to something I’ve eaten before, and before I knew it, I was baking not only for Harmony Tarts, but Louise Cake as well.

Let me explain: They both have the same bones: an enriched pastry base, jam, and coconut meringue to top them off. The similarity between the two couldn’t be shaken, but while Harmony Tart has disappeared, Louise Cake thrives. You can find recipes from Chelsea Sugar, Food in a Minute, Annabel Langbein, Edmonds, Nadia Lim, and even as ‘New Zealand Louise Slice‘ from The Spruce (unaffiliated links).

Let’s start with Harmony Tarts. I searched the internet and all I could find on them was a request for the recipe in Stack of Recipes, likening them to Louise Cake.

Harmony Tarts, from The Cookery Book of the New Zealand Women’s Institutes, 5th ed. 1937.

I did think there wasn’t going to be much dough and meringue, but as it came out there was plenty. 1/4 inch thick dough sounds quite alarming, but when you convert it, it’s 6mm, so while thicker than store-bought pastry, there’s enough to give you 12-13 pastry cases. I filled the cases with about 2 tsp of homemade plum jam, before carefully dividing out the meringue topping.

The earliest recipe I could find for Louise Cake in Papers Past is from September 10, 1929 in the Manawatū Times (although I do not claim that this is the earliest recipe). Australia pips us with an earlier use of the name, with a recipe for Louise cake published in February 1926, but it bears little resemblance to what we call Louise Cake/ slice today. By the 30s Australia had a form of bread-and-butter-jam-sandwich-pudding-doused-in-custard which bears a slightly closer version of what we eat in New Zealand, but it is not our Louise Slice.

Louise Cake, Manawatū Times, Volume LIV, Issue 7011, 10 September 1929

I’ve read speculation that the slice was created for the 1889 wedding of Princess Louise, Queen Victoria’s sixth child. If that had been the case I’d have expected to see earlier recipes, but have not yet had much luck. It’s interesting to see the change in jam recommendations from apricot to raspberry, whereas the other elements stay reasonably stable – an egg-enriched pastry and coconutty meringue. I suspect it has something to do with the look – apricot just doesn’t have the visual contrast as a red jam.

From hunting the internet, it seems that Louise Cake is a quintessentially kiwi piece of baking – bloggers comment on how they’ve never seen it outside of New Zealand (and another example), and with overseas blogs (in addition to The Spruce) also position it as having kiwi origins. Perhaps Louise slice is something that’s actually, unopposedly ours, and we can celebrate it without the bickering that’s so usual with our Neighbours across the ditch.

Louise Slice, from the 1926 Manawatū Times

Sunday Baking: lost cakes of yesteryear

Cake – we eat it to celebrate, to commiserate, and even just because. In 2019 ran a poll to see which cake falvours were most loved in New Zealand. Popular options included chocolate, banana, and carrot cakes -the staples of the cafe cabinet. But what caught the eye of my friend Emily was the less popular options, all of which come of a certain vintage and who enjoyed popularity in the past century, but no more. Citrus cakes like lemon and orange, fruit cake, madeira cake, sponge cake and marble cake all polled under 10% each. Some might be justified, but for the most part these cakes are suffering a tired image and have lost favour.

I’m actually not surprised by marble cake polling at 0%. It doesn’t have a distinct flavour, but it does have a colourful interior. But, in my copy of the Victoria League of Auckland’s 1937 copy of Tried Recipes, the page number for both marble and Madeira cakes are handwritten at the top of the page of contents for speedy finding. It was a sign – I needed to make a marble cake.

Photo – recipe & noted pages

I was surprised by the lack of a chocolate swirl in the cake – my childhood marble cake baking from the Edmond’s Cookbook included one third plain, one third red and one third brown batter. To be fair, it wasn’t really the most attractive combination, but marble cakes do exist in popular culture, but with a different name. This version, with its red and white is quite simple, although the instructions to spread three layers of batter one atop each other was fiddly – I did my best but gave it a swirl to try and make it more marbled.

The marble cake has a German and American Heritage, and seems to have been adopted into Jewish cookery as well. In Nigella Lawson’s Feast, she includes a marble cake recipe in the Funeral section: the recipe was provided by a Jewish friend who explained a marble was customary for shiva, prompting Nigella to muse over whether it was in anticipation of the marble headstone.

Going further back, the marble cake can trace its ancestry to a German cake called Marmorkuchen, which was flavoured with molasses, spices, dried fruit and coffee, partially mixed with plain batter and baked. The first English reference that’s been found to Marble Cake is in America: according to Poppy and Prune, the term ‘marble cake’ was first recorded in English in the September 29, 1859, issue of the Illinois State Chronicle. Recipes have been found from 1864 (a molasses and spice version) and 1889 with Chocolate.

In New Zealand, an early marble cake recipe can be found on Papers Past with a recipe in the July 1885 ediotion of the Wairapapa Standard with a molasses tinted batter. A recipe for the cake with a trio of shades was published in 1901 recipe, a red-and white recipe from 1907, was included in a gas cookery demonstration in 1918 and was regularly published in Newspapers in 1931, 1933, 1939, and of course, the recipe I made above in 1937. There would be many more recipes in cookbooks publised in New Zealand, but suffice to say this cake was well loved.

I had a final nod to my 1937 cake to bring it into the modern era, icing it – although it really was almost too pretty to ice – with a marbled, mirror glaze so beloved on instagram.

Plastic free cookery: Pasta à la Casa

Welcome to week 2 of plastic free July! I hope your pursuit of less plastic is going well for you, because I fluffed up on day one. Not to panic: you learn from absent-minded moment and keep going. And so this week, in pursuit of reducing my plastic, I made pasta.

Pasta wasn’t always the staple of the kiwi kitchen: from a quick scan of my small cookbook collection, it seems publishers thought three pasta recipes was plenty. The 1937 Cookery Book of NZ Women’s Institutes has three pasta recipes: ‘Macaroni shape’, spaghetti and tomato sauce, and Macaroni and tomatoes. The 5th edition of Tried Recipes, compiled by the Victoria League of Auckland has a recipe for Kidneys and Macaroni, Macaroni Cheese and Macaroni Tomatoes. The 1955 edition of Edmonds has three pasta recipes; Salmon Macaroni Salad*, Chippolata Spaghetti,* and Minestrone soup (with vermicelli). Pasta’s now undeniable role in our kitchens grew from the 60s: in 1967 Edmonds released the 8th edition of their famous cookbook, with an expanded range of pasta recipes.

In 2019 I had the opportunity to travel to Italy to study conservation of historic objects. It was amazing for the art and material heritage, and the food was my secondary focus. After the tour I took a day trip to cook in the Tuscan hills, where I learned to make pasta. This is the recipe I received in the class:

Base Recipe for all types of home- made pasta.

  • 400g plain flour (00 type flour or All Purpose Flour)
  • 4 eggs

Sift the flour on to a clean work surface. Form a kind of volcano- shaped mound and use an egg to push the flour around to make a well in the centre. Break the eggs into the middle.

Whip the egg with a fork, slowly adding the flour to the eggs. When your fork no longer functions because thedough is too thick, use the side of your fork to scrape off any excess dough stuck to your work surface. Add the excess dough scraps to the top of your main dough and get a coating of flour on the outside of the dough so it doesn’t stick to your hands when you begin kneading.

Clean your hands and the work surface and lightly dust it with flour. Start to knead the dough with the heel of one hand. Folding it in half, pushing and turning 90 degrees. Continue to knead the dough for 10-15 minutes until it becomes smooth and elastic. If the dough gets hard, wet your hands and continue to knead and it will become softer. Wrap the dough in cling-film and place to one side to rest for around 10 minutes.

Place the dough out on the lightly floured work surface and gently roll it out with a rolling pin to form a sheet of roughly 2mm in thickness. Remember to flip the dough regularly, and keep a light dusting of flour on it so that it doesn’t stick to the rolling pin or the work surface.
When your sheet of pasta is rolled out, dust it with flour and roll it down uniformly until you have it all on a big roly-poly. With a sharp knife cut out
your noodles to a width of about 1 cm( 3/8 inch) and lay them on a clean cloth dusted with flour for about 30 minutes.

When ready, bring to the boil a pot of salted water (as salty as the sea), add the pasta and cook it for 5-7 minutes as desired.

Why “Macaroni”?

You may notice that older recipes more often call for ‘macaroni’ than for pasta of any other shape. I had a hunch that macaroni was used as a generic term for what we now call pasta, or if the range of shapes available really was that limited. While trying to figure it out, I found The Eternal Table, written by Karima Moyer-Nocchi. (Her post on Roman Macaroni was so good I had to make it for dinner the same night I read it). I reached out to Karima to see if she had any insight.

Karima explained that the history of the words pasta and macaroni are not clear-cut, but that ‘pasta’ more often referred to dough (which makes me think there’s a familial relationship between the words pasta, pastry and paste). The first recorded use of the word macaroni was in 1273, and was a food category. ‘Pasta’ as we know it today only really came to its current use as a “chic reference for people ‘in the know’ – a sort of cultural inner-circle badge – picked up when Italian ‘cuisine’ came to dominate the international gastronomic stage” Karima explained. The swap in terms may have something to do with the association of Naples, whose population were referred to as mangiamaccheroni – macaroni eaters – and being associated with the Neapolitans might have been rather undesirable. Which is bizzare to think of, given the popularity of pasta today, and the love for pizza, Naples most famous dish.

“Macaroni Eaters” by Domenico Gargiulo. Three Neapolitan beggars, or lazzaroni, eat a dish of macaroni with their hands in the middle of a street.

* I want to make these for the sole fact that they sound so bizarre to the modern palate.