Guilty pleasures: A little pie

Confession time. Over the winter the Small Girl and I have been having a weekly pie-shaped treat, the sort that is low on nutritional value and high on nostalgic charm (well, nostalgic for me at least).

When we came back to New Zealand a year ago I realised how incredibly distinctive the smell of an old-fashioned Kiwi bakery is. It’s sweet and savoury at the same time, a combination of filled rolls packed with ham and salad, golden pies brimming with steak and cheese and lamingtons oozing cream and jam. This smell is as definitively Kiwi as the All Blacks and no 8 wire – and it’s quite reassuring to know that it still exists. Most of these bakeries are now run by Cambodian and Vietnamese immigrants, who have become keepers of the old ways. Perhaps they recognised early on that the way to a New Zealander’s heart was through their stomach and that stomach would like a pie, a filled roll and a date scone, thanks very much.

Anyway, the Boy Wonder grew up big and strong on this kind of traditional Antipodean snack and I’m hoping the Small Girl will inherit at least some of his super powers. She abhors potato in any form except this one, a piped crown of whipped mash (I suspect it’s not even real potato, but I try not to think about that) hiding a little pool of gravied mince, which is held in a pastry case. The baby food gurus would probably have a fit, but I am working on the principle that a little of what you fancy can sometimes do you good. In any case, it’s part of her heritage. I’d be being a bad mother to deny her that.

Do you have a secret bakery treat from your corner of the world?

Treat me: Banana Oaties

Strange I know, but sometimes there is such a thing as too much sugar. These little cookies, on the other hand, are so virtuous that they’re practically candidates for canonisation. There’s no sugar, no dairy and no wheat – but plenty of flavour thanks to sweet, ripe bananas and sticky, chewy dates.

Sugar Free Banana Oaty Cookies

They’re an excellent snack for little people and make a good breakfast substitute for big people on the go. Actually, if you overcook them you could crumble them into a bowl and call it muesli. Otherwise, eat with a glass of cold milk.

Banana Oaties

3 very ripe bananas

2 cups rolled oats

1 tsp cinnamon

1 cup dates, chopped

3 dsp peanut butter/tahini

4 dsp canola oil

Turn the oven to 170C fan bake.

Mash the bananas to a slurry, then stir in all the remaining ingredients until well combined. Leave to sit for 15 minutes (the mixture, not you – though this is the perfect opportunity for a cup of tea and the crossword). Drop tablespoon-sized heaps onto a lined baking tray (you’ll need two trays). These cookies don’t spread in the oven so nestle them up nice and close. Bake for about 20 minutes, until lightly golden brown. Remove to a rack to cool, then store in an airtight container. Makes about 25.

Have a sweet weekend, everyone x

Hot stuff

Do you remember Space Dust? It was a sherbet-y, crackly sort of powder that fizzled on your tongue and made your lips tingle. Last night we had the same experience thanks to an amazing takeaway feast (even KitchenMaids need a break from cooking occasionally).

We’ve become addicted to the food at a new Szechuan place in town. We’re usually the only non-Chinese in there and the sweet lady behind the counter always looks a bit concerned when we order, asking if “hot is ok?”

Their Szechuan dumplings, silky little envelopes of minced pork drizzled with a sweet, gingery sauce, are a must, but last night we branched out and ordered ‘chicken with Szechuan pepper’.

When we unpacked it I thought there had been a mistake. There were two enormous boxes, filled to the brim with glistening dried chillies and chunks of spice-coated chicken. We tucked into one, searching out nuggets of chicken buried beneath the chillies. It was hot, but not chilli-hot. Instead, there was this weird sensation, a kind of tingling that started on your tongue and spread to the rest of your mouth.

I’d read about Szechuan pepper before, in Fuschia Dunlop’s amazing memoir, Sharks Fin And Sichuan Pepper, but never tasted it. She describes it in the book:

That incomparable tongue-numbing sensation of Sichuan pepper, a fizzing that starts stealthily and rises to a mouth-streaming, breathtaking crescendo that can last for twenty minutes before it slowly, gradually dies away.

During her time in China Fuschia even searched out fresh Sichuan pepper and ate it straight from the tree. In China, it is venerated not only as a condiment and flavouring but also as a medicinal herb and a symbol of fertility. In remote parts of the Szechuan province the peppercorns are thrown over newlyweds as a sort of confetti. Let’s hope no one gets it in their eyes.

Anyway, it’s the most amazing taste sensation. Needless to say, we devoured every last bit.

My secret crush…

I have a secret crush. He’s tall and fair-haired and I can’t stop thinking about him. I think about him when I’m supposed to be working and I think about him when I’m pushing the pram and I even think about him when I’m curled up on the sofa with the Boy Wonder.

The new man of my dreams is Dean Brettschneider, a New Zealand baker who counts Rick Stein, Peter Gordon and Anton Mosiman among his fans thanks to his amazing ways with bread and patisserie. You should see his buns, not to mention his fig and aniseed scone twist or apricot and pistachio tart! But the path of true love never runs smooth and we are going to be parted by the cruel forces of the public library.

I found his book, Global Baker, wedged between tomes on wedding cakes and muffins in the part of the library usually frequented by derelicts in search of a cosy place to snooze. It’s a brilliant collection of advice and recipes for everything from pain au levain to spun sugar cages. Dean (we’re on first-name terms) now works in Shanghai, where he has introduced the Chinese to the delights of chocolate hot cross buns, baked cheesecakes and lamingtons made with red bean paste. I love him. I told the Boy Wonder that I was going to run away to learn the secrets of amazing baking from a man I’d never met. He said, “Great. Have you seen my cellphone?”

I haven’t actually made anything out of his book. Yet. But when I get my own copy I’m going to start at the almond croissants and work all the way through to the xiang cong hua juan bao (Chinese flower steam buns). It’s all about spreading the love.

Sweet sweet Friday: Pretty in pink

There’s a lot of angst in the developed (read: affluent) world about healthy eating; a lot of handwringing and deep thought and worry when we all know we have nothing to complain about when so many are going hungry.

But every once in a while it’s good to lighten up and treat yourself – or be treated. I think the definition of the perfect present is something that you’d love but never buy. So it is with these beauties,brought over by a good fairy. I wish they’d invent scratch ‘n sniff computer screens so you could try them too.

All this and a cherry on the top!

They might look like ordinary fairy cakes but once you bite in there’s a whole lot of crazy stuff going on. That Barbie-pink carapace of glace icing hides a thin layer of sponge, a thick, creamy dollop of blueberry buttercream and a crisp shortcrust base.

If I could figure out how to make these I’d make a mint (which I’d then have to spend on elasticated waistbands, new teeth and a sugar-proof liver). Perhaps it’s better to leave some things to the professionals.

Wishing you all a sweet, sweet Friday and a happy weekend. We’re off to hunt for a new kitchen (and a house!)