A trip to Riversdale


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I have never been to Riversdale before, which is surprising considering that it is only a couple of hours from Wellington. So when a dear friend invited me to spend the night at her Riversdale bach (that’s Kiwi for a simple beach or holiday house), I jumped into the car and headed over the hills.

I spotted this sign when I reached Greytown, a somewhat chi-chi farming town. You know you’re in the country when the local newsagent sells fresh duck eggs.

Although it’s only the first week of spring here in New Zealand, there were fields of daffodils, and baby lambs on trembling little legs.

My friend and her husband have a large family, and welcome a lot of visitors, so they have expanded the original bach, but have done so with such care that it has retained its simple and relaxed charm. I am saddened when you see baches, that have been in families for generations, being renovated into McMansions at the beach.

The new kitchen has laminate cupboard fronts  that evoke the 60’s with their slanting fronts and chrome pull knobs. I admired the boldly graphic wallpaper. It was a brave choice, but works perfectly with the rest of the decor. So cool, a beach house that doesn’t resort to the cliches of seaside decorating.

Another look at the fabulous wallpaper. Given that the original house was probably built in the 1960’s, it feels appropriate the way it has been used here.

The rest of the bach is just as inspiring, full of unexpected touches of vintage charm.

The bathrooms have been refitted with new pedestal basins, then finished with vintage finds. Do you see the shadow box of old hotel soaps? I was delighted by these.

And this grouping of Bakelite frames, that originally held dried flowers, now with family photos. The curtains are made from bark-cloth found in a local vintage store. These quirky touches have created a holiday home that is fun to explore.

I had such a lovely time, hanging out with my friend in such an idyllic location. And yes, there were duck eggs for breakfast.

Cheers, Karen


Wedding cake with Crepe Paper Flowers


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Hello dear readers, it’s been a long time since I’ve posted. A death in the family, a severe attack of shingles, and then a total knee replacement had all sucked my writing mojo, but now that I’m recovering, I want to share some projects from my back files with you.

Last November I was invited to a wedding, and was honoured when the bride asked me to do the wedding cake for her. She gave me free range with the design, but expressed an interest in paper flowers, and showed me a snippet of the dress fabric, which had gold thread and beading on it.

I had never made crepe paper flowers before, but was keen to give it a go. As the wedding was to be outdoors at Huka Lodge, which has a glorious bush setting, I wanted a design that was elegant, but a little informal. At the time of the wedding, I had clematis montana climbing all over my back deck. Its pretty white flowers and gently twining tendrils inspired me to try and recreate them in crepe paper.

The stamens were made by cutting a strip of yellow paper (approx. 10cm long and 2cm wide) and fringe cutting along the length of the strip. Then I twisted each little fringe strip; it really helped to lick my finger before each twist. Then I rolled the the whole strip, and attached it to a piece of floral wire with green florist tape. I made a petal template by gently remove some petals from an actual flower, traced around these, and used that as a guide to cutting petal shapes from white crepe paper. The paper is easy to mould into a cupped shape by gently stroking it with your fingers. I used a dab of white glue (PVA) to hold the petals in place, then used more floral tape to secure them in place, and continued the tape down the wire to create a calyx and stem. I used the same template method to make the leaves, and by concertinaing the paper, I could cut a lot in one go. These flowers require a lot of patience, but are not difficult.

The little gold and pearl button decorations were made well ahead of time by piping royal icing onto non-stick paper, allowing them to dry, then storing them in an airtight container until needed. Using a Wilton no.2 piping nozzle, I piped a central dot, then five more dots around the centre. A gold dragee was popped on the centre dot, then sugar pearls around that. Do let me know if this inspires you to have a try at paper flowers or a cake project.

Cheers, Karen

Israeli Couscous Salad


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Perhaps this should have been titled Serendipity Salad.
A few weeks ago my daughter, Natalie, who is home from university for the summer holiday, decided she’d like to have a dozen friends over for a barbeque.She’d made a potato salad, bought buns and sausages, organized drinks and dips. But knowing that there would be strapping teenage boys with bottomless appetites coming over, I thought that she needed another side dish.
One disadvantage of living in Days Bay is that it is very popular on Wellington’s sunny days (although these have been rarer than unicorns this summer.) And with a just a coastal road in and out of the bay, the slow moving crawl of cars is a real disincentive to the idea of a quick trip to the supermarket. That, and a post-holiday sense of thriftiness made me suggest that we try to make something out of what we could find in the fridge and pantry.

First up was Israeli couscous…
A hunt of the pantry shelves found plenty of dried fruit, from the pre-Christmas fruit cake baking binge. I thought currants and tart dried cherries would be good. And, inexplicably, I found dried apricots soaking in Marsala (don’t ask!) in the fridge.
The salad was very well received, and I got requests to make it again, and to pass on the recipe. So the photo above is from the remake, where I tried to figure out quantities for a dish that was thrown together in a rather improv way. Assuming most people don’t have apricots in Marsala lurking in their fridges, I worked out a method to shortcut the process. So, a cup of apricots, chopped,  soaked for 20 minutes, then a minute or two in the microwave come out plump and sweet.
My herb garden is positively fecund at the moment, apart from the coriander being rather straggly, so fist-fulls of parsley, mint, and as much coriander as I could muster, were chopped. The currants were given a little bath in orange juice, then also zapped in the micro. I also zested the oranges (note to self; remember to zest oranges before squeezing.) I  toasted some slivered almonds, but they were too shy for a photo-shoot. The dried cherries were cut in half, but I felt the salad would need a bit of chew, so no soaking for those..
The new season garlic has just been harvested here in NZ. It’s sweet and mild, so four fat bulbs did not seem excessive, but it is wise to temper this amount to what is available in your market. Fruity extra-virgin olive oil, to simmer the garlic in. And a generous two tablespoonful of Ras El Hanout.
Ras el Hanout is a middle eastern spice blend that can vary from a simple mix of five or six spices, to lavish and costly mixes with thirty plus ingredients. Adventurous cooks might like to try their hand at making their own, a good recipe can be found in Greg Malouf’s book, Malouf: New Middle Eastern Food. But for now, I’m happy to use his Golden Ras El Hanout spice mix.
The first lemons from the tree we planted last year. A rather puny harvest, but gratifying nonetheless to be able to pick my own fruit. These three were zested and juiced. That tool in the background is a Microplane zester, and if you don’t already own one run, don’t walk to your nearest kitchen supply store. You’ll thank yourself.
While the couscous was boiling in lots of salty water, the garlic was gently sizzled in the olive oil, then the Ras el Hanout was given a minute in the pan, to toast the spices and draw out their fragrance. Don’t omit this step, as the spice will be harsh in the back of your throat if you use it “raw”.
Everything gently tossed, and scattered with crunchy toasted nuts. The barbeque evening was terrific fun, and when I found a small bowl of this leftover the next day, I realized it was even better after a little wait. So, a great do-ahead dish that will feed a crowd, or that is easily scaled down to more moderate portions. Do let me know if you try this, I look forward to each and every comment.
Cheers from the South Seas, Karen. The recipe is on the next page
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The sweeter side of Christmas


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Christmas dinner in New Zealand at the Brown house is an amalgamation of the traditional wintery English food that my grandparents always served, and lighter summery fare, that acknowledges that we’re not actually watching robins perch on snowy boughs, and that the sun may be beating down (as it did this Christmas day).

I love planning and cooking the Christmas dinner, but I adore the desserts and sweets end of the menu. I thought that before Christmas is packed away for another year, you might enjoy a look at some of the food, and you might like to file away a great recipe for the prettiest chocolate strawberries (we’ll get to those soon.)

Firstly, get the trestle tables out of the garage, and set a pretty table with roses from Mum’s garden at each setting.

Put lusciously juicy Ranier cherries into pink glasses…

and add dishes with snappy gingerbread cookies propped up in sugar.

After barbequed prawns and scallops with mango salsa, prime rib, glazed ham, duck-fat roasted potatoes and other side dishes, plus a woo-woo cocktail or two, I knew I wouldn’t want to be carefully plating the desserts, so I planned desserts that could be pre-prepared into individual servings.

Trifle is a non-negotiable, so I made a raspberry trifles in glasses rather than my big glass trifle dish. Raspberries are hitting their peak here, so they were a natural choice for the fruit component, with a slurp of Framboise liqueur to accentuate their flavour. To lighten the traditional layering of  sponge cake, fruit and custard, I added a jelly made from a couple of packets of frozen berries, simmered with a little water, sugar and lemon juice. I mashed the berries as they cooked, then strained them through a sieve lined with muslin. Then the tart juice was topped up with water till I had enough for 1/2 cup per serving, reheated to melt the gelatine ( I used 2 1/2 sheets of soaked gelatine for each cup of juice, as the jelly needs to be firm enough to support the following layers.) The jelly needs to become semi-set before it is poured over the cake and berries, otherwise it will turn the sponge into soggy mush. Add a final layer of creamy vanilla creme patisserie, a piped swirl of whipped cream and a perky berry for garnish. The last touch was a shower of  gold sprinkles. I save these for special occasions, as they were a souvenir of Paris, bought at the Bon Marche Grande Epicerie. These were all prepared the day before, and the genoise sponge was baked the week before and frozen.
The other dessert was pear-caramel ice cream with finely diced candied ginger mixed into the ice cream, garnished with tiny gingerbread trees (that’s edible glitter on the tree tips). These were all scooped the day before, so I only had to reheat the salted caramel sauce before serving them. The recipe for the ice cream and the sauce came from David Lebovitz‘s book, “The Perfect Scoop”. This is probably the best book on making ice cream I’ve ever come across, perfect results every time and flavours to fill a whole summer with creamy goodness.
And finally, strawberries in tuxedos…
I first served these at Christmas about ten years ago, and now the girls insist that they are an essential part of the Christmas feast.Although, how they actually made it to the table, when they kept mysteriously disappearing from the kitchen….. Continue reading