Friday, June 29, 2007

I invested in a butcher's shop in Tajikistan and a smoked-fish seller in Sierre Leone today.

Social responsibility is one of our core values at ThoughtWorks, my employer. There's lots of conversation at the moment about what we should do. A colleague, Angela, mentioned that she is a micro-lender on Kiva and I followed her link.

I saw a documentary recently about micro-loans, but in the same way that I quite often think "I should buy/eat/organise/think/read about that", it went out of my mind. I have several criteria for charity. The overheads of many of the large charities mean that the money we donate doesn't always do quite as much good as we think it might. I'm interested in Africa. I like to support women. I think that education is essential in developing nations. What delighted me about Kiva is that I am able to direct my money to individuals, and the site UI allows me to choose which people I support based on their gender, location and business.

So instead of checking out Facebook at lunchtime today I made a loan to Mbalu Kholifa, a mother of two who runs a business producing and selling smoked fish. She wants her children to have a good education, and the loan will help them to buy materials for the business and improve profits. Flushed by my success I wanted to find more women to help, but couldn't find any involved in food. So I made a loan to Abdumavlon Salimov, who rears and slaughters his own cattle in Tajikistan. I figure that if I am ever in that part of the world, I'll know where to get a good steak.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Cupcakes on Pitt

There's something about a cupcake. I brought the box on the left into the office and there was lots of cooing and oohing. There's something about the scrummy moistness and the swirly frosting that makes the sanest of adults all excited. I reckon it's to do with getting to eat a whole cake. I'm a sucker for anything that I can have all by myself. Maybe it's a mini Melton Mowbray pork pie with a slick of English mustard. A crisp skinned poussin which I can devour with my fingers. A Vacherin Mont'Dor and a loaf of bread. A leg of lamb.

Cupcakes on Pitt reminded me of Peyton and Byrne in London, only with less frosting (this is no bad thing in my eyes, I am All About the Cake) but friendlier service. They have two branches, one in Bondi and one at 323 Pitt Street. Their best seller (and most delicious cake) was the Lemon Meringue Pie, with its sharp lemon curd filling and swirl of soft French meringue ontop. Slightly less sucessful was the Honeycomb, as the frosting was too sweet, but I heard great reports on the Milk Chocolate.

I'll be back, because as you can see from the photo, there's nothing like a box of cupcakes.

Cupcakes on Pitt, 323 Pitt Street (02) 9264 4644

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Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Wildfire (and a rant about Oscillate Wildly)

Restauranteurs put a lot of effort into tempting punters into their dining rooms. So I still can't work out why they're so rude when people call to book a table. These days I can't really be bothered to do the whole reservation thing. I'm over the whole faxing El Bulli in Catalan to secure a reservation six months before you want to eat. I understand that having your restaurant booked up three months in advance is good for the restauranteur, but it's just not for the customer. I can see how a three month wait might be feasible if you're making me a sofa but three months notice to cook me dinner?

I called Oscillate Wildly, one of Sydney's hottest restaurants, when I first arrived. I knew the buzz was insane so I was happy to go when they had a table. I'm neither rich enough nor beautiful enough to expect to eat at 8.00pm on a Friday or Saturday night. So my pitch was "I'd like to eat in your restaurant, I know you're booked up, I would like a table for two any night of the week in May, I can come as early as you like. I'm at your mercy."

The person who answered the call laughed and told me they were fully booked until June and hung up.

This was in March.

No wait-list. No attempt to find me a space. No offer to take my number and call me when one of the people who booked six weeks in advance can't make it. I'll try a walk in early one day and I'll probably get a table. Because here's the rub. Restaurant reservationists seem to revel in pissing off the people who call, but when they see the whites of your eyes, they'll generally accommodate you. Funny that.

My mate Dave was over from London and I needed to find somewhere for us to have dinner. I was busy, so I left it until 3.00pm on the day we wanted to eat before I started my search (the best time I find as the restaurants have generally confirmed their reservations by lunchtime and they have a better idea of who's tipping up.) Wildfire is just up from Circular Quay, right opposite the Opera House and so as far as I'm concerned, not a bad spot to eat supper in. They make a big deal about their woodfired Churrasco, and Dave and I were up for a bit of a meat orgy.

First up, the little tapas they bring to get your started are very delicious. The warm flatbread with a tomato and Kryten goat curd dip is especially good. The mini venison sausage rolls were also suitably flaky, although not a patch on the sausage rolls from Mr Christie's in London. But here's the rub; linger over the tapas and a bottle of wine from their extensive list and suddenly you're not hungry anymore.

So we sort of wimped out on the meat orgy. Churrasco is meat on a stick, Brazillian style. The waiters will bring over a spike and slice off what you want, you're even given a handy pincer to help them with their meat. Being Sydney they also do a fair seafood selection, although Dave and I were agreed that this wasn't quite as good as the meat. The highlight for me was the Angus sirloin which had been aged for 30 days, although the lamb wasn't bad too. I'd go back but more likely to their bar, ember, where you can get the flatbread and an amazing selection of wine by the glass.

Here's the backstory though. When I called we were told that they'd have to have the table back by 8.30. The reservationist gave a lot of attitude and I nearly didn't take the table because there's only one thing I hate more than having to wait three months for a table, and that's being told how long my meal is going to take me to eat. What happened on the night? The restaurant was half full and we sat on the harbour until 10.00pm. I really don't understand why restaurants make such a hash of making a good first impression.

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Sunday, June 10, 2007

New Camera

Hopfully the quality of photos is going to improve on this blog. No more camera phone! I've just bought a Leica D-Lux and plan to do a photography course once work calms down a little bit. I have a couple of meals I want to write about and only have the phone pictures for that, but otherwise there's going to be lovely pictures like this one of the Spaniels I looked after last weekend; Toby and Tassie.

Lemon and Blood Lime Marmalade.

As autumn turns to winter and as the rain pelts down over Sydney, a young girl's thoughts turn to preserving. I've been inspired by some of my friends' attempts and was determined that this autumn would not pass without me putting some things into jars (and coating the whole kitchen in sticky substances along the way).

My marmalade making begins with a trip to the Sydney growers market where I picked up some blood limes. I had a vague idea what I'd be able to make marmalade out of this uniquely Australian fruit which is a cross between a mandarin and a finger lime. Their flavour is described online as sour, although I'm assuming that someone wasn't feeling very poetic that day. I'd say they have very high acidity with less of a perfumed flavour than your average lime. The flavour of mandarin isn't very pronounced at all. I then popped to my local chi-chi cookery store and picked up a dozen of the world's cutest Bormioli preserving jars and a citrus reamer ready for the following weekend.

I did my research, scouring my books for marmalade recipes. I knew that nowhere would have a blood lime recipe, so I was trying to work out the best method and a way to convert my blood limes into another citrus fruit. I read what the myths are about preserving (there's no need to warm the sugar no matter what Delia says) and fretted if I'd need to pasturise the jars after I'd filled them. There was a brief flirtation with making a tequila flavoured lime marmalade, but I chickened out as I was worried that it wouldn't set. This was, afterall, my first attempt. I plumped for a Delia recipe in the end, from her Winter Collection.

I scrubbed the fruit in some scaldingly hot water and set about juicing it. It was at this point that I started to regret the whole blood lime thing. Turns out you can squeeze six lemons in about 35 seconds, but it takes far longer to juice 450g of blood limes. Next up came the chopping of the skins. Then lemons were fine once I got over my panic about what to do the with left over flesh and connecting tissue but it took me about 45 minutes to shred the blood lime skins.

The pith and pips of citrus fruits contain large amounts of pectin, the magical stuff that sets your preserves, so I had juiced the fruit into a jug (to keep track of the quantities, I ended up using about three quarters lime to lemon) before adding it to the preserving pan. You're supposed to put your pips into a square of muslin, but of course I couldn't find any. Let's just say we're lucky that Myer's had a 30% off sale on tights. I'd probably go with a lower denier next time (I used 20) as it can be quite hard to squeeze the pectin through the reinforced toe. Otherwise a (brand new) leg of a pair of tights is a really useful option as you can easily tie it to the pan, or just knot it and drop it in.

The skin and juice goes into the pan with the pips and pith tied in their tights. Bring to the boil and then simmer for two hours, or until the peel squashes easily between your fingers. It only took an hour to get to this stage for me and I started to worry as most of the lime shred had melted into the liquid. I trusted my instinct and stopped the simmering at this stage. Take your tights out of the jam and leave them onto the side to cool as you're going to squish and squeeze all of the gooey pectin out and then whisk it into the pan. Heat the oven to about 170 degrees at this point and pop four saucers into the freezer.

Now for the dangerous bit. My brother still bears the scar of the last time I heated sugar to any great temperature and asked him to check that it was at the hard crack stage. I was about 11 years old and was already bright enough to recognise that I didn't want to stick my finger into the sugar and see it if was at 150 degrees, although obviously not bright enough to know when you need to buy a sugar thermometer. I did what all precocious children do and got my older brother to do it for me. I don't think I'd prepped Carl very well, as rather than dipping in and pulling his fingers apart to tell me if the sugar was hot enough, he screamed, put his fingers to his mouth but missed and glued his fingers to his moustache with molten sugar. So, I added the 1.3kg of sugar to the pan and brought it to a rolling boil, leaving it there for 15 minutes. After 15 minutes you can start checking for your set, by putting a teaspoon of the marmalade onto a chilled saucer. If your marmalade is set, it will form a skin as you push your (or your older brother's) finger through. If you don't have a set you keep boiling for another 10 minutes before you check again. My marmalade took about 30 minutes to reach setting point which was worrying me a little as lemons and limes are high pectin fruits. I wonder if I should have left it to simmer for a little longer?

It didn't seem to matter as I got my set in the end. It's a good idea to leave your marmalade now to settle for about 20 minutes. This allows the shred to settle throughout the jam and makes sure that you get even distribution of shred. It also means you can pop your washed jars into the oven to warm and call one of your best friends to tell them what you're doing. The filling is the bit where things get slightly messy. I'd recommend getting a jam funnel rather than using a sterilised jug like I did. My jars had little vacuum seals on the top so I was planning to have to pasterise the jars after filling them, but hot filling seemed to do the job and the vacuums "set" (or whatever the technical term would be). Wait until the jars are cold before you label as otherwise they'll just fall off.

I was planning to wait for a couple of weeks before opening the jars but I was planning to give some as gifts so I needed to test it the next morning. For quality control purposes you understand...

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