Five essential kitchen gadgets for less than $5

Have you seen Rhik Samadder’s hilarious food gadgets testing series in The Guardian? It’s very good, not least because it confirms my prejudices that these fancy bits of kit are mostly bought by people who are afraid of cooking.

I like ogling fancy kitchen tools as much as the next person, but it occurred to me recently that the things I use most often (with the exception of knives, my father’s cast iron frying pan and my food processor) are actually the smallest and cheapest members of my kitchen army.

Here, in no particular order, are five of my most useful kitchen tools according to house cleaning dublin – and they all cost less than $5.

1. Rolling pin: Have you always sighed over those beautiful French rolling pins? Me too. But this cheap and cheerful version – a length of dowelling from a hardware store – is just as good. It’s also the perfect length for my kitchen bench and at 50cm it’s long enough that two pairs of hands (one little, one big) can use it at the same time.

2. Pot(ato) scrubber: A few years ago I gave my beloved a nifty brush that amusingly resembles a potato (he comes from a family of rampant spud eaters). But I’ve since traded it in for one of these – a pot scrubber. Nothing beats it for cleaning dirt-encrusted potatoes, both for efficiency and speed. A pack of two costs about $5, so you can use one for your pots and the other for your potatoes.

3. Dough scraper: Even if you don’t make bread, one of these is a boon to any cook. They cost about $1.50 and you can use them for all sorts of kitchen tricks aside from breadmaking. Just don’t make the mistake of putting them anywhere near a hot frying pan – I speak from foolish experience.

4. Scissors: I use these for cutting pizza, snipping herbs, slicing chicken thighs, scoring dough, chopping spring onions – all sorts of tasks. They are in such hot demand from other members of my household too (I must ask ‘where are my blue scissors?’ about 20 times a day) that I’m thinking of investing in a secret second pair. At about $4.50 from the supermarket, I think we can afford it.

5. Silicone pastry brush: It’s not always smart to do things on the cheap. For the last five years I have struggled with a repurposed paintbrush whenever I’ve needed a pastry brush and cursed every time I’ve had to pluck a sharp bristle from a fluffy brioche or out of a pie. A month ago I splashed out on this pink beauty – a princely $2 – and it has changed my life. The bristles are soft but strong. It’s a gamechanger.

What are your favourite kitchen tools? Do you like to spend up large on shiny things or keep it simple?

The art of writing – workshops at Tea Pea

It’s cold, and grey and the news everywhere is bleak. But before you rip open a chocolate bar and sob into your screen, there is a ray of light on the horizon. And you can get involved!

This month sees the start of a series of fun workshops, demonstrations and talks at the lovely Tea Pea School in Khandallah. You can sign up to learn about loads of things, including floral artistry, interior design tricks, cake icing and writing. Yes, writing. I’m particularly excited about that one, because I’ll be teaching it.

So, if you long to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) but don’t know where to start, come and join us. The Art Of Writing workshop will help you unearth your inner writer, with tips on connecting with your audience and finding your voice, advice on grammar and construction, how to craft the perfect social media post and more. We might even talk about how to write a recipe, if the need arises.

There will be lots of fun to be had, along with food, drinks and goodie bags. You can find out more about The Art Of Writing workshop and the Tea Pea School here.

Have a great weekend, everyone x

How to fake a wedding cake

This is the wedding cake that nearly wasn’t.

Pandoro Black Doris Plum And Mediterranean Orange Wedding Cake

When one of my oldest and dearest friends announced she was getting married, I immediately offered to make the wedding cake. She accepted the offer and that was that.

When their wedding was delayed to May, I breathed a sigh of relief and put the cake on the back burner.

Then all of a sudden it was April, the bride was talking multiple layers, chocolate ganache, and the merits of chocolate mud versus chocolate and fig, I had a million other things on my mind and I was lying awake at night, panicking about The Cake.

It was then I remembered that I’d been in this situation before. Five years ago, with a small baby and ideas above my station, I offered to make the wedding cake for some dear friends who’d blown into New Zealand from London to get married.

“Oh yes please,” they said. “Don’t go to any trouble, but we’d like it to have three layers and have licorice allsorts exploding out the top.”

Making the cakes – one chocolate and fig, one chocolate mud and one banana (the groom’s favourite flavour) – was easy. Doing the decorating was not. Not for the first time, I recalled a school report in which my teacher said I was often frustrated when my grand plans for artworks didn’t come to fruition. I handed the baby to my mother-in-law and spent 24 hours wrestling with kilos of white fondant icing, alternating between wanting to cry and wanting to cheer.

On the afternoon of the wedding, my beloved and I balanced the cake on our knees while my father-in-law drove as slowly as he could around corners. We screamed every time the cake lurched towards my silk dress, more for the sake of the cake than my outfit. By the time we got to the venue the cake had several dents in it and I needed a strong drink to settle my nerves.

It nearly killed me, but the lovely bride and groom were happy and lots of guests said nice things about the cake. Still, I swore that it was the last time I would ever do it.

With those memories flooding back, I rang the bride. “I can’t do it,” I told her. “I’m too afraid it will be a disaster and you’ll be even more disappointed in me than you feel right now.”

Like the good friend she is, she took this news on the chin. Instead of making the cake, I decided to redefine my role as chief cake wrangler. I set about getting cake quotes and set up a wedding cake Pinterest board to gather ideas. When they baulked at the quotes – a two or three tier wedding cake is in the region of $400-$500 – I came up with plan B.

Instead of requesting a wedding cake, I asked Pandoro Bakery to make us two large cakes – one a 14″ Black Doris Plum Chocolate, the other a 10″ Mediterranean Orange, which they present on gold foil cake boards. I got them to ice them identically with chocolate ganache, with the sides rolled in white chocolate shavings.

The day before the wedding, my fellow bridesmaid and I picked them up and took them on a two-hour car ride (mercifully, on very straight roads).

Later that night, the groom helped me engineer the two together, inserting dowel rods to keep the top layer from collapsing into the bottom. With no storage option, we carefully manoeuvred the cake into a beer fridge and prayed it would survive the night.

The next morning, I returned to the venue, rescued the cake from the fridge and plopped some white roses on top. Just like that, the job was done.

The cake looked beautiful, my 22-year friendship with the bride is still intact and my mental health is sound. I may never make a special occasion cake again.

Are you prone to making special occasion cake promises? Do you have any secret tips?

Kombucha 101: Fermented drinks for beginners

Kombucha – a kind of slightly fizzy fermented tea – is having a moment. 

The drink, which is made from sugar, tea, bacteria and yeast, has been around for centuries, but a resurgence in all things fermented means it’s especially hot right now. There are Facebook groups devoted to sharing ‘scobies’ (the culture needed to make the drink), commercially made versions that sell for up to NZ$20 for a 750ml bottle and loads of forums where devoteees discuss the best kinds of tea and sugar to use. A kombucha bar, with six different kinds of kombucha available on tap, even opened in the hip Sydney neighbourhood of Leichhardt last week. 

Devotees believe kombucha has all sorts of health benefits thanks to its probiotic properties. I’m not in a position to make any claims as to kombucha’s efficacy – it hasn’t cured me of anything or driven me to Instagram my abs on a daily basis – but I do think it’s good for digestion. More importantly, I like the way it tastes, which is my main consideration.

Berry kombucha, brewed in November 2014

I’ve been making my own kombucha since late last year, after receiving a scoby from someone I met via the ‘Fermenting Freaks Forever’ Facebook group. I know it might sound strange to invite a perfect stranger to send you a gelatinous-looking yeast culture in the post, but it’s worked out well. So far I’ve shared the scobies I’ve grown with lots of other strangers – as well as any advice I can give them about brewing the perfect batch. 

If you’re in New Zealand and you’d like a scoby, don’t buy one. Look on Freecycle or Facebook – there is bound to be someone in your community who has some to give away. If you’re in Wellington, feel free to contact me – I have more than I know what to do with.

There’s loads of information available online about how to get started, but a lot of people find it extremely confusing to navigate. Here’s the advice I give to my kombucha recipients – and they’ve all been successful so far.

Continuous brew kombucha (that’s the scoby floating in the tea). Image:Catherine Adam

Kombucha 101

As well as a scoby (which stands for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast), you’ll need a large glass vessel. I recommend scouring your local op shop for a large jar – like a two-litre gherkin jar, or similar – to see if you like it, before rushing off to invest in a big vessel with a spigot. The latter can be found in most homewares stores – the one in the picture came from The Warehouse. Make sure the spigot is plastic (most of them are). You’ll also need a supply of glass bottles with lids in which to bottle the brew. I use clean screwtop wine bottles – for some reason we always have plenty of those to hand.

This is how you make what they call ‘continuous brew’ kombucha – because it’s always on the go. If you want to have a rest from it at any stage, then put it in the fridge and bring it back to life on your return.

What you need:

13 cups boiling water

2/3 cup sugar

8 plain black or green teabags (or 2 Tbsp looseleaf tea)

1 scoby and 1 cup kombucha (this is often referred to as ‘starter tea’ – anyone who gives you a scoby will give you some starter tea as well)

What you need to do:

1. Put the boiling water and sugar in a large pot and stir well. Let cool for a bit, then add the teabags and let them steep for 10-15 minutes. Carefully pull them out and let the hot tea cool to room temperature.

2. Carefully pour the cooled tea into your nice, clean glass vessel (strain it through a fine sieve if you have used teabags). Gently pour in the kombucha liquid and scoby. 

3. Cover the top of the glass vessel with a piece of muslin or fabric and secure with a rubber band or piece of string. This allows the kombucha to breathe, but keeps out flies and other bugs. Leave in an open spot, out of direct sunlight. 

4. After a week, taste the kombucha – it should be ‘dry’, but not too vinegar-y, with that distinctive flavour. If you think it’s ready, then drain it into bottles and add flavouring to them, eg fruit, ginger, lemon or orange zest and 1 tsp sugar. The kombucha will eat up all the sugar, so don’t worry about adding it. 

5. Seal the bottles tightly and set aside until you are ready to drink them. They will keep fermenting – if you want to stop the process, put them in the fridge. 

Important things to remember:

1. Make sure you leave at least one cup of kombucha with your scoby at all times or it will find it hard to make more. As it grows, it will form new layers in your jar. This is perfectly normal and a good sign. If, however, it looks like it is growing furry mould, then this is NOT good and you may have to start again. 

2. Make sure you keep everything super clean – clean the bottles and lids with hot soapy water and rinse well with boiling water.

3. Plain white sugar is best – do NOT use honey as it can affect how the scoby grows. Avoid brown sugar too – it makes the kombucha quite yeasty and seems quite sweet.

4. Save any flavouring to the ‘second ferment’ eg when the kombucha is bottled. The scoby doesn’t like any flavoured or herbal teas – just ordinary gumboot tea is perfectly fine. It’s like a tradesman – it likes hot, sweet, ordinary tea and regular praise!

5. However, if you want to be fancy, green tea or white tea is also good. You can use decaffeinated black tea, but I’d advise throwing in a normal teabag or two for flavour reasons. Decaff’ tea by itself is a bit tasteless. White tea gives the kombucha a delicate, floral flavour.

6. When it comes to flavouring the second ferment, anything goes. I most often use frozen berries (say, six frozen blueberries and a teaspoon of sugar to 750ml kombucha), or slices of fresh ginger. Elderflower and ginger is another gorgeous combination. My all-time favourite is using my sister’s homemade crystallised orange peel and a few slices of fresh ginger for a kind of Cointreau-ish kombucha.

7. The kombucha will ferment a lot faster in warmer weather – you may need to check it earlier. If you have left it too long for it to be pleasant to drink, you can always bottle it as vinegar. I’ve successfully made fridge pickles using kombucha vinegar and my sister-in-law has made raspberry kombucha vinegar. 

Are you a kombucha fan?

Must-watch TV: The Katering Show

I don’t watch much food TV, as a rule. In fact, I don’t watch much TV at all (I’ve even given up Coronation St). But a new series is making me reconsider. It’s The Katering Show – a sort of Kath and Kim meets The Office meets Annabel Langbein.

Australian comedians Kate McLennan and Kate McCartney have hit on a winning recipe for their shows, which parody “foodies” and all the gadgets, fads and Pinterest-worthy lifestyles they aspire to.

The Thermomix episode is a must-see for anyone who’s ever wondered if their life really would be improved by a “German death machine” – sample line: ‘It’s the kind of thing you buy yourself because you’ve always wanted to join a cult but you don’t have the energy for the group sex’. I showed it to a work colleague and he was practically weeping over his computer with delight.

If you’ve been feel guilty about your sugar intake, the I Quit Sugar episode will leave you with a warm glow…

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to watch this one…

Happy viewing!