Four years ago, not long after my mother died, someone I didn’t know very well left a lemon verbena tree on our doorstep. I found this gesture incredibly touching and kind, not least because my parents’ garden had a huge lemon verbena tree and Mum often made tea from the leaves. I’m not sure if I ever properly thanked her – but Kate, if you’re reading this, I often think of that kindness when I walk past the tree.

The tree has thrived, despite my neglect, but I seldom do anything with the leaves except for the occasional cup of tea. Then, while pottering around in the kitchen a week or so ago, I made this syrup and the whole house smelled like lemon verbena. It was gorgeous.

If you’ve got a lemon verbena tree, make this syrup now to get a dose of that intense lemony sherbet flavour in the depths of winter (or scent your house with it in summer). You can use it in drinks (nice with soda, or with very cold vodka as a kind of martini-ish number), or pour it over vanilla ice cream, or use it in this simple and elegant fruit salad (recipe follows). I’m thinking a lemon verbena sorbet could be next…

Lemon Verbena Syrup

1/2 cup boiling water
1/2 cup caster sugar
1 packed cup lemon verbena leaves

Put the water and sugar in a small pot and set over medium heat. Stir until the sugar has dissolved, then lower the heat and add the lemon verbena. Let bubble gently for five minutes, then remove from the heat and leave to cool.
When the syrup has cooled completely, strain it through a fine sieve into a sterilised bottle or jar. Discard the lemon verbena leaves or use them as a garnish (they will be almost candied). Makes about 1/2 cup.

Simple fruit salad with lemon verbena syrup
2 white-flesh peaches
2 apricots
2 dark-fleshed plums
1 1/2 cups blueberries (or boysenberries)
1/4 cup lemon verbena syrup

Cut all the stonefruit into slim wedges – about eight slices – and put in a bowl. Pour over the syrup and stir gently, then add the berries. This can be done in advance, but I think it’s nicest at room temperature rather than fridge-cold. Serves 4-6.

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?

Someone asked me the other day what has been my greatest achievement of 2014. In the absence of anything else, I’ve finally decided that keeping going this year has been achievement enough.  Thank you dear readers for your continued support. May 2015 be full of ‘great achievements’ (whatever you think they are) for all of us.

In the meantime, here’s a small, recent achievement – summer in a glass. Think of this as the Kiwi Pimm’s…

Easy Recipe For Berry Brandy Champagne Cocktails Recipe And Photo By Lucy Corry/The Kitchenmaid 2014

Sparkling berry brandy cocktails
This is a good way to turn a bottle of Lindauer into something more special. The first person I served it to commented that ‘the strawberries hide the taste of the alcohol’. I didn’t have the heart to tell him about the brandy…

2 Tbsp brandy
1 Tbsp icing sugar
2/3 cup sliced strawberries
1 bottle of your best sparkling wine

Put the brandy and icing sugar in a small bowl and mix well. Add the strawberries and stir. Set aside (this can be done several hours in advance if you like). To serve, divide this mixture between six champagne flutes and top with sparkling wine.

Happy New Year, everyone. See you in 2015.

It’s about this time of year that I start to feel slightly panicked and wish I could run away to some kind of closed community where they don’t celebrate Christmas, or have jobs, or blogs or Things To Worry About. Do you feel like that too?

The internet is the worst place to be if you’re in that kind of mood, because CHRISTMAS is around every turn. Don’t, whatever you do, venture on to Pinterest, or you’ll fall into a deep depression at the realisation that you’ve failed dismally as a mother/partner/sibling/friend/member of society because you haven’t planned your themed decorations, hand-stitched jaunty bunting or made 20 sets of Frozen-themed figurines of every kid in your child’s class from air-dried clay. And you’ve still got to bake for the school gala, sort your invoices, locate the spare car key and send your dear friend her birthday present, now three months overdue (sorry Claire!). 

Fear not, friends, because I have a remedy to lift you to a higher place. It’s chocolate chilli syrup – and if pouring it over cake or ice cream doesn’t cheer you up, then adding it to a martini certainly will. Here’s how.

Chocolate-Chilli-Syrup-Recipe

Chocolate chilli syrup

If you’re stuck for easy DIY Christmas gifts, this should go on the list. It takes minutes, doesn’t cost much and is extremely simple. It’s my offering for this month’s We Should Cocoa challenge, hosted by the lovely Shaheen of Allotment2Kitchen. No surprises in guessing this month’s guest ingredient – it’s chilli.

1 cup water

1 cup caster sugar

3 Tbsp good quality cocoa powder

1 tsp chilli flakes

Stir the sugar and cocoa together in a small pot, then add the water and mix well. Bring to the boil and let simmer for five minutes, then remove from heat. Stir in the chilli and let cool to room temperature. Strain through a fine sieve into a jar or bottle and cover tightly. Store in the fridge.

Choc-Chilli-Martini-Easy-Recipe

Chocolate chilli martini

Martini purists, look away now – this is very much my desperate housewife interpretation.

60ml ice cold vodka

30ml vermouth

30ml chilli chocolate syrup

ice

Put all ingredients in a cocktail shaker (confession: I use a jam jar) and shake well. Strain into a martini glass (or two, if you’re generous).

 

It’s the ultimate collab – two loved and respected food brands who each make fantastic quality products, joining them together in blended union. Organic milk + premium chocolate = a marriage made in heaven.

But there has been just one problem with Lewis Road Creamery’s Chocolate Milk (featuring Whittaker’s Creamy Milk Chocolate): it’s been flying off shelves faster than they can make it. However, help is at hand. Using a little Kiwi ingenuity, you can make your own Lewis Road Creamery Chocolate Milk. Here’s how…

Homemade Chocolate Milk Recipe

Homemade Chocolate Milk
Let me be clear – I’m not being paid for this. But take it from me, a confirmed non-milk drinker AND as someone who can easily say no to most milk chocolate, that these two products are incredibly good, both separately and together. If you’re struggling to get your hands on a bottle of their match-made-in-heaven chocolate milk, here’s how to make your own at home.

125g Whittaker’s Creamy Milk Chocolate, roughly chopped
750ml Lewis Rd Creamery Light Milk
a pinch of salt

Put the chocolate and half the milk in a small saucepan and set over low heat. Stir occasionally, until the chocolate has just melted. Set aside and cool to room temperature, then add the remaining milk and the salt. Stir well, then decant into a jug or bottle and put in the fridge to chill completely. The chocolate may solidify a little, but a good shake or stir will sort things out.

Have a great weekend, everyone x