Category Archives: Seasons

When your friends give you lemons …

The month of June 2013 was the wettest in Sydney since 2007. With double the historical average, homes were left soggy, damp, and leaking, but many of our gardens flourished. In particular, citrus trees were delighted with the downfall, setting many fruit in the conditions.  Fortunately, the very dry and mild July has allowed the fruit to grow and ripen, and some of my friends have bumper crops of citrus, branches groaning under the weight.

My lovely friends Anthea and Gus have a couple of healthy citrus trees in their backyard, and put out a call for friends to come and help themselves to oranges and lemons (and they’re nowhere near the bells of St Clemens).  Prior to my mountains writing retreat, figuring that cooking was a necessary and enjoyable distraction, I raided the lemon tree to transform some of the harvest into delicious treats for friends and family.

The three most traditional ways of keeping a lemon for future use are through the preserving agents of salt, sugar or fat.  In Moroccan cuisine, lemon quarters are rubbed vigorously with salt and packed into sterilised jars with spices (cinnamon, coriander seed, bay leaf) for the traditional L’hamd marakad (literally ‘sleeping lemons’).  I used Stephanie Alexander’s recipe from her iconic A Cooks Companion – you can look it up via this link. I won’t be able to open these beauties for another 2 or so weeks, but they should last the rest of the year. Once ready, the flesh is scraped off and you only use the rind sparingly to add complexity to savoury dishes (tagines, soups, etc).

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Preserving fruit with sugar will give you a jam or marmalade. Apparently the word marmalade comes from the Portuguese word marmelada, which means preserved quince, and the first written usage of the word is from a play published in 1521. Of course in Portuguese tradition, marmelada is the famous quince paste, a delicious accompaniment to a cheese course. Coincidentally (before even knowing this), I actually flavoured this year’s batch with  quince jelly, a delicious by-product from some baked quinces. When you bake quinces in the oven (with water or verjuice, sugar and spices), at the end of the cooking process there is a delicious, sweet, quince-flavoured liquor that remains. Because of the high pectin content of the quinces, you can boil this down to a concentrate that sets naturally: hey presto, quince jelly with no horrid gelatine! Here’s my effort:

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Last year’s marmalade was quite different to this batch. I used a more simple approach via the BBC Good Food site, but with some important modifications. I added more fruit (1.2kg), reduced the sugar to 1.5kg, added in 4 tablespoons of quince, 3 passionfruit and a vanilla pod for some different flavours. So far the reaction from punters has been very good!

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The final, most perishable and indulgent form of preserving fruit flavour is in fat: specifically, butter. Lemon butter, or lemon curd, is a wonderfully versatile ingredient: you can spread it on toast, use it as a pie filling (I made a blackberry tart with lemon curd last year) and even make a delightfully retro “tropical meringue roulade” (with lemon butter, whipped cream and a brown-sugar meringue, all rolled up together).

According to the British Food website, lemon butter has been mentioned in cookbooks from the mid-19th century, and prior to that it was referred to as “lemon cheese”.  My partner’s mother Betty always refers to it as “lemon cheese” rather than lemon butter or lemon curd.  Apparently there’s also a difference between the North and South in whether one says “cheese” or “curd”.  In the past I’ve made lemon butter on the stove by incorporating butter, slowly whisking it in on a double boiler; I’ve made it in the microwave (shudder – but it worked as a fast solution); and this time I followed a really wonderful Lemon & Passionfruit Curd recipe by one of my contemporary food heroes, Poh Ling Yeow. It has worked a treat, and just as Poh says, it looks curdled at first, and as you stir there is a miraculous transformation into silky smooth deliciousness.

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So that’s this year’s lemon preserving efforts. In total, from a bag of about 40 or so lemons I made 10 jars of marmalade, 8 jars of lemon curd and two jars of preserved lemons. It’s a great way of continuing the lemon bounty for some months to come: you avoid buying commercial products that are loaded with extra artificial rubbish; you are using a local, sustainable product without a great deal of outlay; and you can  give them away as gifts to your loved ones!!! Last pics are of my lovely friends, picking the bounty from THE tree of plenty. Thanks, gorgeous ones!

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Winter baking and marmalade making

When the temperature drops and the wintry rain discountenances outdoor activities, a gratifying distraction on such occasions is to formulate an indoor cooking project.  We retreated to the mountains hideaway this weekend accompanied by our friends Tim and Karl, and later Marty and Kel.  Tim is an accomplished baker and preserver.  (Is there an elegant word for a person who makes jams and preserves? I haven’t found one as yet.)  With such auspicious alignments in mind (that is, bad weather and a cooking collaborator), I thought that the weekend would be perfect for my first foray into the world of preserves, jams and marmalades, guided by one who had gone before me with many successes.

But what to preserve?  I had some lovely red grapefruit that had been purchased with the intention of being used in a fennel salad; and mum and dad’s meyer lemon tree had also yielded an amazingly good crop of lemons in its first year.  With such a bounty, what could one do but make Lemon and Grapefruit Marmalade?

The recipe was fairly easy.  2 grapefruits, 4 lemons, sliced finely, the seeds and some pith preserved in a muslin.  Soak the fruit overnight in 2.5L of cold water.  The next day, pour into a pot, bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 45 minutes. Then add 2.5kg sugar which had been warming in the oven for the last 15 minutes of the simmer.  Remove any scum that rises to the surface. Cook, stirring for 10 minutes until the sugar has dissolved. Then bring back up to the boil, and cook for up to an hour, or until the jam has set.  Let cool, pour into sterilised glass jars, and admire! If you want the recipe that I based mine on, here’s a link to it.

There are a whole series of nostalgic memories surrounding marmalade. My grandmother Essie (z”l) was an excellent cook, and was the first person to introduce me to marmalade as a child: in particular, Rose’s Lime Marmalade.  And my maternal aunty Wendy had a cumquat tree at her house in Killara, and I remember as a small boy visiting there, and enjoying the most intensely sour and sweet smell of cumquat marmalade cooking on the stove.  We had a small sample on hot, crusty bread with butter.  Delicious.

Tim and I decided to make another nostalgic treat: melting moments.  The recipe was easy – basically a shortbread by any other name, with the crucial ingredient of custard powder added, for flavour and colour.  I creamed butter with the seeds of one vanilla pod.  Then I combined icing sugar, custard powder and plain flour in a bowl, and beat it into the butter with a wooden spoon.  It’s crucial to beat it in lightly, so that you do not work the gluten in the flour.  Then we rolled it into small balls, made the characteristic prong marks with the fork tines, and baked in a medium oven for 18 minutes.

Here’s the controversial part.  Essie used to make very special melting moments with dulce de leche rather than the lemon or passionfruit icing.  For this, she would boil a can of condensed milk on the stove for 2 hours, making sure that the water was always in the pan so the can did not explode.  Two hours later: caramel, or dulce de leche.  Sandwiched between the shortcrust biscuits, these are incredibly rich and delicious.  I can’t ever eat more than one.

 

 

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Autumn begins

Autumn is often a bit iffy here in Sydney. We’ve had one of the wettest summers on record, so the beautiful Japanese maples in Leura (my favourite Autumnal display) have had a very good drink over summer, perhaps more than they would usually desire. As a result of wet feet, they are clinging onto their foliage for dear life.

Thankfully, the wet weather has been followed by some glorious warm, sunny days. However, if we do not get some cool, crisp evenings, colour will not emerge and we will have a late, disappointing brown fall of leaves. Here’s a picture of one of the maples outside our house in Leura. It dwells in partial shade, and has changed earlier than most of the other beautiful trees that line the road.

The signs for the end of the week aren’t looking promising for colour: we have a series of wet days ahead, and this will just promote leaf fall. Darnit … I want my autumnal colours, but I think they will elude us in 2012.

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