When I first moved to Australia I was amazed at how mince tarts were everywhere at Christmas. When I was a kid, mince pies were something my mom made at Thanksgiving or Christmas to accomodate the old people in my family. I don’t know that I ever tried my mom’s pie because I was turned off by the word “mincemeat”.
So, imagine my surprise when I tried a mince tart my first Christmas in Australia and found out that- Hey!- I actually liked them.
Last year, my last Christmas in Australia before moving back to the U.S., I had the privilege of participating in Mince Pie Making Day at Brendan’s house. He and I worked on a radio show together and every year he invites friends and co-workers to his house to assemble hundreds and hundreds of mince tarts. Everyone gets to take some of their handiwork home.
Brendan's kids helped show us the way to the "factory".
A lot of butter and a big bowl of mince were there to greet us. Brendan and Nicki's mince recipe is a tightly guarded secret.
Brendan's wife, Nicki, was the pastry roller extraordinaire.
Everyone takes a turn at the table filling their trays with mince tarts.
A tray of tarts ready for the oven.
We kept the oven quite busy. We made almost 60 dozen tarts.
Bruce and Brendan, my buddies from Gastronaut on Radio Adelaide.
The table for the finished tarts. For some reason the kids really enjoyed playing in here!
Strawberry shortcake is, in my opinion, the most perfect dessert. Of course this is dependent upon the quality of the shortcake and the strawberries.
In June, you can pretty much count on strawberries being top notch. I’ve also found what is probably the best shortcake recipe on the internet– one that is as good as– no, actually trumps– the shortcake recipe on the Bisquick box which was long my favorite despite the fact it was on the Bisquick box. The completely homemade shortcake recipe was on the Food Network website and it was really wrong, but thank goodness for reviews and comments because that helped correct all its flaws. It makes a lightly sweet, slightly crumbly shortcake that’s soft in the middle and has a pleasantly crunchy crust.
I’ve been making this particular shortcake for about a year and have recently found myself wanting to experiment with some new flavors. My basil is starting to go nuts and I’m not quite ready to start making pesto, so I wanted to incorporate some of that. I made a lemon-basil shortbread a couple of years ago that was absolutely intoxicating. I figured if lemon and basil works in shortbread, why not shortcake?
I mixed the dry ingredients for the shortcake together and cut in the butter and shortening before adding in the finely chopped basil, lemon zest and lemon juice. After I’d incorporated that, I poured in the half-and-half (did I mention these aren’t lowfat?) and stirred until the dough just came together. The shortcakes went into the oven and came out 15 minutes later lightly golden, flecked with basil and sparkling on top from a sprinkling of raw sugar.
I couldn’t even wait for them to cool before I pulled a tiny nibble off one of the shortcakes. They brought the memory of that lemon-basil shortbread back to life. With ice cream and strawberries it was a taste of summer with the basil and lemon providing a je ne sais quois — that turned the familiar into something new and intriguing.
Next time, I’ll try the shortcakes with blueberries– I think the blueberries and basil will be an even more divine combination.
Lemon Basil Shortcake
2 c. flour
1 tbsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
1/3 c. sugar (or a little less)
2 Tbsp. shortening
2 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh basil
1 Tbsp. lemon juice
2 tsp. grated lemon zest
2/3 c. plus 1 Tbsp. half and half
Mix together flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Cut or rub in shortening and butter until dough is the size of small peas. Add basil, lemon juice and zest and stir (don’t be tempted to the add lemon juice to the half and half– it will curdle it). Add the half and half and stir until all the dry ingredients are incorporated and the dough just comes together. Drop by tablespoonfuls onto a cookie sheet. Brush tops with melted butter and sprinkle with raw sugar. Bake in a 400 degree oven 15 minutes until lightly golden. Makes 8 shortcakes.
I’ve long thought cooking with flowers was a little too precious for my style. It seemed so Martha-like and made me conjure up images of a mesclun salad sprinkled with pansy petals– the kind that would be served at a baby shower luncheon in the Hamptons.
But recently, I reviewed a book called The Scented Kitchen that may have changed my mind. Because it’s winter in Australia, about the only flowers available right now were lavender so I tested the author’s recipe for lavender smoked salmon (it’s a keeper) and then made lavender brownies for dessert.
The recipe for lavender brownies wasn’t in the book, but I took the author’s advice to do my own floral experimentation. So I used an Alice Medrich brownie recipe and for the regular sugar I substituted lavender sugar, which I made by pulsing lavender flowers and sugar in the food processor.
Granted, the basic brownie recipe is a terrific one, but adding lavender takes them to a new level. There’s a whiff of lavender as you bite into the brownie, but unless you know it’s in there, it’s one of those aromas that you can’t quite put your finger on. The lavender even seemed to add a spicy note to the brownies which developed their intensity and richness.
And even though I did feel like I was channeling Martha maybe just a little while I was making these, there’s nothing precious about them. They’re dark, mysterious and darned near perfect.
When the call came out for guest bloggers on Benjamin Christie’s site, I put up my hand since I’m new to blogging and figured I could use some exposure anywhere I could get it. I wrote about the beauty of blemished fruit. You can see it here. And here’s a photo of one of the many treats I made with that fruit: an apple walnut cake.
This cake is moist and delicious — a perfect taste of autumn. I found the recipe on Epicurious and have only altered it by reducing the amount of sugar. I usually only use half as much (or maybe just a tad more than half) as the recipe calls for. I also will use whatever apples I have on hand– I don’t get fussy about the variety. I hope you like it as much as I do and that you can also find the beauty in the fruit and veg that so many people ignore.