You can’t argue with the following statement: Wherever you are, the season is changing. In New Zealand we are heading into spring with unsettled weather that’s often rainy and sometimes cold. While it’s not quite Santa Claus time up in the far north, autumn or fall will soon be making its presence known. It’s when we all get to cook the same thing (more or less)! I’ve dug in the archives for a couple of beauties: Lamb Shanks with Mint & Date Stuffing and Pork Belly with Boston Baked beans. They’re both superb. While I had pork belly to hand I did a rendition of Coq au Vin: Farmhouse Chicken with Belly Pork & Potatoes. It’s a great way to prepare chicken.
A reliable recipe for a fruit and nut loaf is a welcome addition to your repertoire. This one has a slosh of brandy in the mix. Brandy is not essential but I always love having a sniff when I uncork the bottle!
For a classy dessert – there are plenty of tips to help you achieve a great result. Prune & Frangipane Tart will bring a round of applause. Soaking the prunes in brandy gives you another reason to uncork the bottle and have a sniff.
And how about the pic of Ilaria (and Luca and Remo) in the NZ Herald? (Scroll down MAKING MEMORIES) We were enjoying our family ritual of stirring the ingredients together for a Christmas cake and making a wish. Two things spring to mind: how time flies (it was taken in 1999 when I was Food editor of Viva), and that now is the perfect time to make a Christmas cake. While you’ve got the brandy uncorked, slosh some in the fruit to help preserve it, and yep, go on, slosh a little snifter in a glass and make a toast to family and loved ones. It’s glorious stuff.
CUTE FRENCH CHICK
The essence of this French farmhouse dish is a much-loved combination of thyme, white wine, bacon and shallots. The chicken is floured and browned to produce colour and flavour for the ‘sauce’ (the flour will also help thicken the juices), the potatoes are then laid on top of the chicken where they will cook in the flavoursome steam, and everything is simmered until tender. Both chicken and potatoes are imbued with the tasty trio of thyme, bacon and shallots. You’ve got to give a nod to the French – such a simple concept, and easy enough to do, and simply delicious to eat. FARMHOUSE CHICKEN WITH BELLY PORK & POTATOES
PORK BELLY WITH BOSTON BAKED BEANS
Crackling. CRUNCHY crackling. Gorgeously golden, so fingerlickin’ salty, and so perfectly crackled you hear it shatter in your ears, and all lined with a layer of sweet creamy fat that melts on your tongue. OMG! Died and gone to heaven with this one. Get the deep casserole out and get this humming along in the oven one night soon. How can you get such crunchy crackling when the pork and beans are submersed in liquid? Just trust me. This is pork ‘n beans Boston style and they’ve been cranking it for years. The beans emerge squishy-tender, imbued with smoky porky-ness – yep, I’ve tucked a couple of bacon bones in there for added flavour. PORK BELLY WITH BOSTON BAKED BEANS
Underwhelmed by meaty lamb shanks that fail to deliver (tough, dry, or meat that refuses to part company with the bone)? Here’s one to make before you file the slow-cooker, or if you are in the northern hemisphere and heading into autumn or fall, it’s an excuse to dig it out. Cooking the shanks couldn’t be easier – you just put them in the slow cooker and cook them on High for 4 hours. But first, you must stuff them with an exotic mix of dates, mint, coriander seeds and garlic. The smell as they cook is guaranteed to induce hunger. All you need do while the shanks cook to fork-tenderness is whip up a mash or a bowl of steamy grains to go with them. Easy. LAMB SHANKS WITH MINT & DATE STUFFING
LOOKING FOR A DEPENDABLE LOAF?
Look no further. Here’s a fruit and nut loaf that’s great for afternoon tea, perfect to take on a picnic or day trek, and special enough to drop off to a friend in need. And it’s easy to make. I’ve added a slosh of brandy because it adds a depth of flavour to dried fruit (and I love the smell of it cooking!). The brandy is optional but it does extend the life of the loaf – it’ll keep well for 4-5 days without it, but brandy will ensure it keeps fresh for at least a week. Of course, you will have eaten it before then! LOCKDOWN FRUIT & NUT LOAF
PRUNE & FRANGIPANE TART
Keeping with the French theme (I think there was one with the chicken!), here’s an exquisite prune and almond tart to share with your extended bubble, or if you have Lockdown freedom, with a group of friends. Yes, I’ve made pastry – though in a food processor it is hardly a bother (except for the washing up!). There are HEAPS of pastry tips here, so I urge you to have a go, but if you can’t handle making pastry yourself, buy the best you can. I’ve used brandy to soften the prunes, but a fresh orange juice would work equally well. Once you’ve made the tart and it’s sitting glistening on your kitchen bench, give yourself a pat on the back: you will have made pastry, frangipane and apricot glaze. Quite an achievement and your tart will look just as good as the gorgeous creations you see in patisserie shops throughout France. Make it your go-to tart when you want a sumptuous finish to a dinner party.
I find it easiest to roll the pastry on baking (parchment) paper covered with food wrap. You use less flour this way (too much flour used in rolling out can make the pastry surface dry), and you can easily move the pastry around. Rolling pastry between two pieces of paper is equally as good, but using plastic wrap for the top enables you to see the pastry and check it is not sticking.
Tarts and pies are brushed with apricot glaze to give them an attractive shine and to prevent fruit from spoiling. It’s easy to make, but the hot tip is, use it while it is HOT! I prefer a silicone brush to avoid bristles getting caught in the glaze. PRUNE & FRANGIPANE TART
Some of you may know, others not, that I worked as a Food Editor of various magazines and newspapers in New Zealand for more than 33 years. I did a 13-year stint at a magazine called MORE and 17 years at Cuisine magazine among other roles, and I was Food Editor of Viva NZ Herald for 5 years and loved it. Writing for a newspaper is different to writing for a magazine. There’s an urgency about it, you can stay topical, and as you don’t have the luxury of time that a magazine offers, you’ve got to be fast and accurate. I continued writing for Cuisine magazine, wrote books, and did weekly Breakfast TV and radio while I did the Viva stint. It was manic, but I thrived. That was when I had ‘littlies’, two children who grew to appreciate good food and in turn have become great cooks.
One feature included our family ritual of gathering together to stir the Christmas cake ingredients before putting the mixture in the tin. We all made wishes. My wish in all these years has never changed: to keep my family safe and a wish for world peace. I wonder what Ilaria was wishing for in the picture? Probably a new bike from Santa! Remo and Luca are also in the picture (great stirrers!) – Luca in his Ponsonby Intermediate School tee shirt, so I must have nabbed the kids once they came home from school to pose for the photo.
I was reminded of all of this last week when I was contacted by a woman called Kate begging for the Christmas cake recipe featured here. She’s made it for years – the article was published in 1999 – but thanks to Covid she couldn’t access the recipe. She told me that for many years she has been making at least a dozen of these Christmas cakes ‘to the delight of even the most cantankerous of old English relatives who have come to love yours and place ‘orders’ as soon as the last morsel is devoured for the next vintage’. She was desperate. I went on a hunt and luckily I had kept the Viva food features so dug those out and found it there. And, yes, there’s nothing like yellowing newsprint to take you down memory lane!
What I like about this story is how a recipe lives on, moving from one family to another as it goes on its journey, making new traditions along the way. And, I thought, what a great idea to make a Christmas cake during Lockdown. We may not all be as generous as Kate who makes dozens of cakes, but one cake to share with family and friends will be most welcome come Christmas. Now’s the time!