Christmas countdown

Do you realise there are just 54 more making and baking days ’til Christmas? Quick, reach for the smelling salts!

I’m in a bit of a quandary about when to start my Christmas activities this year, partly due to our imminent house move on December 1. On one hand, I would love to move into our new house and think, ‘a-ha, thank goodness I did all that baking and preserving and general faffing about already’. But on the other, I’m not sure it’s a good idea to add to the pile of things to wrap and pack and move. Actually, filled jars and tins might stand a better chance of making it across town than empty ones. I can already envisage the conversation with the Boy Wonder:

Me: What happened to all the empty jars in the pantry?
Him: I put them in the recycling.
Me: But I’ve been saving those all year!
Him: Too bad. We’ve got enough to do without packing empty jars.
Me: And what about the Christmas cake?
Him: What Christmas cake?
Me: The big square package in the box in the pantry
Him: Oh, I thought that was just rubbish. I threw it out…

In the meantime, I’ve been revisiting what I made last year, because a friend and I are making plans to have a Christmas makeathon together. Top of the list will be these deliciously spicy Christmas tree decorations, not least because the recipe makes loads AND the dough can be frozen. Next, the ever-popular best-ever brownies (also makes lots and can be frozen). If you’re really short on time, then both the date truffle fudge and the chocolate body scrub can be made in minutes (and the former will be consumed even faster).

One decision I haven’t made yet though is what kind of Christmas cake we’ll be having this year. I’m not sure I want the Small Girl to get a taste for the brandy-soaked figs and chunks of dark chocolate that stud our traditional cake, but I can’t decide what else to make. Any ideas gratefully received.

If you need a little more inspiration to get your Christmas planning underway, I suggest checking out Vanessa Kimball’s Let’s Make Christmas idea (which has already got scores of organised people showing off what they’ve made already) or Polka Dot Daze’s Christmas Challenge. Don’t dilly-dally though, there’s not much time left!

Avocado vinaigrette

I am being plagued at the moment by emails from the avocado mafia. Avocado pears are now in season in New Zealand and the PR firm charged with marketing them is leaving no stone unturned, so to speak. I don’t mind that – everyone’s got to earn a living somehow – but I object to some of their suggestions. The day I opened the email breathlessly spouting the delights of adding sliced avocado to macaroni cheese my finger hit the delete button so fast there was practically steam coming off it.
Avocadoes, to my mind at least, should not be heated. Nor do they belong on pizza, in cheesecake, or in smoothies. I think the best thing to do with one is to mash it on wholegrain toast with lots of salt, pepper and lemon juice. The second best thing is to eat them as follows.

Avocado Vinaigrette
This is sort of how I remember my mum serving avocado in the late 1980s. Then, avocados were reasonably new, exotic and expensive – as described in Avocado Baby, the John Burningham picture book of the same era. Avocado Baby tells the fantastic story of the Hargreaves, who despair for the health of their sickly child, until he starts eating avocadoes and becomes imbued with superhero strength.

1 ripe avocado
1 rasher good, free-range bacon
1 ripe tomato, optional
salt and pepper
1tsp fish sauce
1 tsp red wine vinegar
1-2 tsp extra virgin olive oil

Fry the bacon until crisp. Cut into dice and put in a small bowl. Dice the tomato and add, followed by the fish sauce, vinegar and olive oil. Stir and add salt and pepper to taste. Halve and stone the avocado, then fill the cavities with the bacon mixture. Eat with a small spoon and a contented smile. A good lunch for one avocado lover.

What’s your favourite thing to do with an avocado?

Sweet sweet Friday: Gateau Yaourt

Four years ago I was in Paris, hoppity skipping around the Stade de France and Parc des Princes in the name of work. A lucky break meant I got a job working at the Rugby World Cup, reporting on the efforts of the Samoa team (until they got knocked out of the tournament) and bossing around a motley crew of international journalists at matches in Paris. It was the best of times (It was Paris. Need I say more?), it was the worst of times (you try going to a press conference and asking questions in French about a sport you know nothing about, or dealing with pouty French men who won’t do what they’re told by a stroppy Antipodean).

I’d never been remotely interested in le rugby, in fact I’d gone out of my way to avoid it. But in Paris it became a great passport: “Ah, vous etes neo-zelandaise? Allez les All Blacks!” It was all great fun, until France beat New Zealand in the quarter-final. Actually, that’s a lie. It was still fun after that. Tomorrow night, the two teams face each other again. I won’t be sitting in a bar in Paris, but I will be eating slices of this classic French cake. It’s the least I can do…

French Yoghurt Cake – Gateau Yaourt
If you believe everything you read, gateau yaourt is the sort of cake that every French housewife makes (presumably in between flirting with the butcher, telling off the baker, having a torrid affair with the milkman, wearing Chanel No.5 and not getting fat). It’s very simple to make and usually flavoured with rum (or “rrrrhuuum”). This version, adapted from Susan Loomis’ ‘On Rue Tatin’, is a bit fancier thanks to the addition of melted chocolate. The end result is supposed to be a bit more marbled than the one pictured, but things don’t always go to plan. Ask les All Blacks.

200g plain flour
3/4tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
3 eggs
200g sugar
finely grated zest of one orange
125ml (1/2 cup) plain, full-fat yoghurt
120g unsalted butter, melted and cooled
90g dark chocolate, melted and cooled

Preheat the oven to 190C and grease and line a 24cm tin. Beat the eggs and sugar together until pale and fluffy. Sift in the flour, baking powder and salt and beat in, then fold in the yoghurt and melted butter. Pour half the batter into the prepared tin, then add the melted chocolate to the remaining batter. Mix well, then pour this into the cake tin. Swirl the mixtures together with a flat knife to marble. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the cake passes the skewer test and bounces back slightly when you touch it. Let cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto a rack to cool completely. Dust with icing sugar to serve.

Bon weekend, tout le monde et bonne chance aux joueurs!

Nose to scale

On Sunday morning I escaped my chores and fled to the City Market to watch Martin Bosley deal to a practically still-flapping snapper (a kind of bream, to Northern Hemisphere readers). It was 90 minutes of brilliance.
I don’t do this sort of thing very often, in fact the last time I went to any kind of cooking demo was to a risotto masterclass at Carluccio’s in Covent Garden. I was massively pregnant, ravenous, and unable to drink any of the chianti my fellow classmates were knocking back. This was a rather different kettle of, err, fish.
Martin, who is a bit of a megastar among New Zealand chefs, turned this 3kg beast into tartare and carpaccio, then baked the fillets in a soy-mirin glaze before serving up the head with a lemony beurre blanc. The assembled group looked on admiringly, sipping glasses of Gisborne chardonnay (“It has to be past noon somewhere in the world,” the man sitting next to me said cheerily.)
It was an incredible, inspiring class. I admit, I don’t have the knife skills to make carpaccio at home, but I feel confident enough to tackle the head. Now it’s just a matter of catching one…

Martin Bosley, left, and his lovely assistant, Seamus

If you are in Wellington over the next few months you should definitely check out the other classes on offer. Martin Bosley will be back again the weekend before Christmas, but there are lots of other great people scheduled in before then. Go on, you know you want to…

Little fried fish

It’s whitebait season again, but we’ve yet to hear any reports from the Coast as to how its going. This isn’t unusual – whitebaiters are notoriously secretive, especially those who sell their catch without the knowledge of Mr IRD. Last year the Boy Wonder experimented with frying the tiny fish in a pan, Spanish-style, rather than binding them in traditional egg fritters. It was a great success, if labour-intensive. But last week he stumbled on an even better way – a sort of oven-fried version, made with a recent newspaper-wrapped delivery from Westport. The other thing that’s changed from last year is that a pound of whitebait (they only come in Imperial measures) used to be enough for two of us – now we have to share it with our smallest dining companion. That’s not a bad thing.

West Coast Whitebait Oven-Fried

Oven-fried whitebait
Excuse the Coaster-style description, but there’s no point giving this a fancier name (except ‘bloody good oven-fried whitebait’ perhaps). All you need with this is a crunchy green salad and a bit of baguette. Oh, and lots of lemon halves.

1 lb (about 500g) whitebait
salt and pepper
olive oil – about 1/2 cup

Defrost the whitebait and rinse under the tap to get rid of any grit. Drain well.
Preheat the oven to 200C and pour about 1/2 cup of olive oil in a roasting dish. (You may need more – the BW is a bit vague on exact measurements). Heat the oil in the oven for about five minutes. While it’s heating up, dredge the whitebait at a time in seasoned flour (shake off the excess in a coarse sieve.) Carefully tip into the hot oil and return the roasting dish to the oven. Cook for about 20 minutes, until the little fish are golden brown and crunchy. Serves two greedy adults and one voracious toddler for dinner – so at least four adults for lunch.

Do you have a favourite way to cook – or eat – whitebait?