The condensed version

Like many on the Pacific rim, we have suddenly become obsessed with our distance from the sea, the safety of our neighbours’ brick chimneys and having an emergency kit. My sister, who is still dispossessed after the Christchurch earthquake, says that when people ask her how they can help the recovery, she tells them to get a disaster kit. She’s the reason why we now have plastic containers full of toilet paper, tinned food, bottled water and various other essentials in our garage. Hopefully, we’ll be in the happy position in a few months to have to eat all the disaster supplies because they’re reaching their expiry date rather than out of catastrophic necessity.

In the meantime, I’ve discovered a packet of milk powder in the cupboard that’s reaching its best-by date and rather than a) throw it away or b) drink it, I’ve been looking for things to do with it. My friend Ann puts a generous cupful into her extremely decadent homemade muesli (which I don’t make any more because we eat it straight from the jar in about a day) and I’ve been using it to make milk for breadmaking. You can also add a spoonful of the dried powder to enrich homemade yoghurt. But my favourite thing to do with it is make my own sweetened condensed milk – a handy trick for the committed condensed milk fan who doesn’t always have it in the cupboard. 

DIY Condensed Milk

Sweet things are good in a crisis, aren’t they? When disaster strikes and our house has sailed down into the next street, I’ll be the one with the fridge full of condensed milk.

1 cup milk powder (full fat, please)

3/4 cup caster sugar

1/2 cup freshly boiled water

Put everything into a jar, attach a well-fitting lid and shake like your life depends on it. Let sit for at least 30 minutes in the fridge before using. Makes about 1 1/2 cups.

Sweet sweet Friday: Polenta Cake

About three years ago my sister told me about a great cake she’d made from a Waitrose recipe card – the sort of thing they post near the entrance so you can duly go and buy all the ingredients on the way. For those of you unfamiliar with Waitrose, it’s the poshest of supermarkets in the UK, where even the own-brand stuff looks incredibly stylish on the shelves. I used to send my mum the Waitrose magazine and she’d bemoan the fact that so many of the ingredients it mentioned would be impossible to find in provincial New Zealand. Ho-hum.

Anyway, I remember my sister giving me the recipe card, which I duly tucked into my notebook. It fell out when I was looking for something else recently and it’s been sitting on the pile of bills on the bench ever since. I’m now about as far from a Waitrose as you can get (as are all my sisters, incidentally), but this is still a great cake.

Berry Polenta Cake
Polenta gives this cake a fantastically gritty texture – it’s the sort of thing you need to eat with a fork on a plate. Don’t give it to a small child indoors unless you have a fondness for sweeping up crumbs. The original recipe was a bit hard to follow so here’s a re-written version. I’ve also used orange zest, juice and orange flower water rather than the lemon zest, juice and vanilla in the original.

175g soft butter

175g caster sugar

3 medium eggs, beaten

150g fine polenta (the instant variety is best for cakes)

100g ground almonds

1tsp orange blossom water (or vanilla)

2tsp baking powder

350g mixed berries, fresh or frozen (or sliced stonefruit – I threw in a couple of Omega plums)

zest of 1 orange


50g caster sugar

juice of an orange (the one you zested for the cake will do nicely)

Preheat the oven to 180C and line a 23cm cake tin with baking paper.

Cream the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy, then add the eggs and polenta and beat again until well mixed. Fold in the ground almonds, orange flower water and baking powder, followed by the fruit and orange zest. Spoon this mixture into the prepared tin and smooth down with a spoon. Bake for about 35 minutes, until golden and a skewer comes out clean. This may take longer if you use frozen berries.
About five minutes before you think the cake is done, put the sugar and orange juice in a small saucepan and bring to the boil over medium heat. Let bubble away for a couple of minutes, until syrupy.
When the cake comes out of the oven, stab it with a skewer (this is incredibly satisfying) and pour the syrup over the top. Let cool completely in the tin, then turn out and sift icing sugar over the top. Serve with a dollop of Greek yoghurt or whipped cream.

Australia Day Lamingtons

The Oxford English Dictionary recently decreed that the pavlova, that airy confection of egg whites and sugar named after a Russian ballerina, was invented in New Zealand rather than Australia. This caused no end of celebration on this side of the Tasman, where we have insecurity complexes over just about everything. The Aussies have a better cricket team (yes, really), a better economy and soon they will even have more New Zealanders living there than there are at home, so it was quite a boost for our feeble collective self-esteem.

In any case, I can’t feel too sorry for the Australians because they already have a national dessert to call their own. The humble lamington, which was reportedly invented as a way of using up stale cake (that’s Ocker ingenuity for you), is often claimed as a Kiwi creation, but given that today is Australia Day I’m willing to let it go. There are many variations – just visit Mr P for some incredible interpretations – but this is one situation where I’m strictly a traditionalist.

Australia Day Lamingtons
This is how my mother-in-law makes lamingtons, which are the best I’ve ever tasted. Admittedly, she’s not an Australian, but she must have learned this recipe from one. Antipodean supermarkets and bakeries sell square or rectangular slabs of sponge that are tailor-made for this purpose – the cardboard packets of trifle sponge sold in UK supermarkets isn’t quite the same, but it will do at a pinch.

Trifle sponge – preferably the sort that looks like insulation foam, cut into large blocks.
2 cups icing sugar
1/3 cup cocoa
2Tbsp butter
1/2 cup milk
around 1 1/2 cups desiccated coconut

Sift the icing sugar and cocoa into a bowl. Heat the butter and milk gently until melted, then mix with the dry ingredients. Let cool briefly.
Put the desiccated coconut into a shallow bowl. Dip each piece of sponge into the icing (pretend you are a plasterer), then dip into the coconut until it is evenly coated. Put on a serving plate and store in the fridge until you are ready to serve. They can also be frozen. If you’re being fancy, cut a slit in each lamington and fill with whipped cream and a dab of raspberry jam.

The best brownies in the world, ever

It’s a big claim, saying you make the best brownies ever, but I do. At least, that’s what various sets of workmates in two hemispheres have told me when I’ve turned up with these little beauties at Christmas time. There’s something about these particular brownies that makes everyone go all sort of dreamy and dazed and happy. Then they tell you how amazing you are, so everyone’s a winner!

Lucy’s Brownies

This recipe, which came from my mum and is possibly an Annabelle White recipe originally, is especially dedicated to my dear former colleague Andy, a talented writer and a brilliant cook who has impeccable taste in music and makes the best cups of tea in the world. Andy, I’ve promised you this recipe for years – now, here it is. Merry Christmas!

The trick with brownies is to undercook them ever so slightly. They should be wobbly in the middle (like Santa) but set around the edges. My trick is to freeze them when they’ve cooled – eliminates any fears about them being too runny and ensures a fudgy texture. This recipe makes LOTS so it’s ideal when you have a lot of brownie lovers to pamper.

450g dark chocolate (I use 70% cocoa solids)
350g butter
1tsp vanilla essence
2Tbsp instant coffee (powder)
2 cups caster sugar
5 eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups plain flour
2 cups cashew nuts (roasted and salted or not, as you prefer)

Preheat the oven to 180C. Grease and line a large baking dish – like a roasting dish – or several brownie pans.
Put the chocolate, butter, vanilla and coffee into a large saucepan. Melt over gentle heat, stirring occasionally. Let cool to room temperature, then add the sugar. Mix well, then whisk in the eggs. Lastly, fold in the flour and nuts. Pour into the tins and bake for 25-30 minutes (check earlier if you are using small pans), until the edges are firm to touch but the middle is still soft. Let cool in the pan. Turn out carefully, then wrap well in cling film or foil, then put in the freezer. If you’re taking them to work for morning tea, take them out of the freezer just before you go. They thaw quickly (and taste fabulous frozen!). Pile them onto a platter and shower with icing sugar. Add strawberries if seasonally appropriate and serve with love.

Do you have a special end of the week – or working year – treat? Add a link to it here and spread the sweetness of Fridays…

Chocolate Fig Christmas Cake

After much prevaricating, my Christmas preparations are finally underway. I’ve yet to buy any presents or make any decorations, but I’ve finally made the cake, with help from the Small Girl and the Boy Wonder. We have a tradition in our house that the Christmas cake must be stirred by all parties in the house – and they have to make a wish while they do it. I’m not sure the Small Girl understood the wishing concept, but she really loved stirring!

Teddy got to try the mixture too – he’s having a liedown to cope with the sugar

What are they wishing for?

This cake is intrinsically linked with celebration. My mother and I made it together one Boxing Day for our wedding cake, giggling like teenagers; my dear friend and mentor Denise kindly emailed me the recipe when we were living in the UK for our first Christmas abroad and earlier this year I made a vast version for Ann and Steve’s wedding cake. The recipe originally came from Peta Mathias, a chef and bonne vivante par excellence. Peta, with her lust for life and flaming red hair, is always described as “irrepressible” and that’s exactly the same way I’d describe this cake. It’s full of bold flavours and not for the faint-hearted. Make this and you’ll never look at a traditional fruit cake in the same way again. When it’s being a wedding cake it needs a coating of chocolate ganache, but at Christmas I think it’s best plain (even if it looks a little bare). Tumble a few decorations on top if you want it to look more festive.

Peta Mathias’ Aunt Edna’s Fig and Chocolate Fruitcake
This is Peta’s recipe, with a few tweaks here and there. She uses all figs – I use a mixture of figs and prunes; she adds slivered almonds, I leave them out because I used to make this for nut-allergic Sophie and discovered that they don’t actually add anything. I use orange zest instead of lemon and have reduced the amount of chocolate a tiny bit because you can have too much of a good thing.

400g dried figs, cut in quarters
300g prunes, cut in quarters
200g raisins
brandy and orange juice for soaking fruit
300g butter
300g brown sugar
1Tbsp black treacle
grated zest of two oranges
5 large eggs
2Tbsp brandy or rum
350g flour
1tsp salt
2tsp baking powder
1tsp mixed spice
1tsp ground cinnamon
600g dark chocolate smashed into little bits

Soak the fruit in a bowl, covered in a mixture of brandy and orange juice for 24 hours (I’ve left it for up to 48 hours with no ill-effects).
When you want to make the cake, preheat the oven to 160C and grease and line a 24cm cake tin. Don’t worry about the brown paper treatment – lining the tin with baking paper is enough.
Cream the butter, sugar and treacle, then add the lemon rind. Whisk the eggs and brandy or rum together and stir into the butter mixture. Stir in the sieved dry ingredients. Drain the prepared fruit (save the extra liquid for a little cook’s tipple when the cake is done!) and stir that into the mixture, then mix in the chocolate.
Pour into the tin, smooth the top and bake for 90 minutes, then turn it down to 150C and cook for at least another 60-90 minutes. Test by plunging a skewer into the middle in the usual fashion. Keep an eye on it – it may be done sooner. Cover the top with a piece of baking paper or foil if it looks to be getting too dark.
Let it cool completely in the tin, then turn out and wrap in greaseproof paper and store somewhere cool and dark until the big day. You can feed it with more booze if you like.