I wake up to a deficit of gas at the student camp, which translates into no easy hot water for my Sunday morning tea. There is also a surplus of horse manure sitting right by the cooking tent. I check on the horses and they seem fine. I collect a few scraps of wood and start a fire to heat some water. While that’s going, I grab a shovel and feed the horse manure to the closest flowering fruit tree I can see. Always somebody to feed. A cook’s work is never done.
Buckwheat pancakes with macadamia butter and ironbark honey. Sweet tea with lemon.
I catch up with Sean, one of the interns. He pulls 20 or so freshly plucked bush lemons out of his bag plus some information about the source of the horse manure. The horses got out of the paddock in the middle of the night and galloped around the student camp for a while before they got them back in. I slept right through the whole thing. It gives me something to chuckle about as I take a couple of Sean’s lemons and make us both some tea.
The others start to wake up, amongst them is Matt, who gets some buckwheat pancakes going for everybody. I pull out a big tub of local raw macadamia nut butter, along with some ironbark honey and we’re in business. I’m sitting by the fire, eating my pancake – it’s such a sweet and creamy, nutty, delicious way to start the day. It gets me thinking about that other sweet morning I had a few days ago in the kitchen….
It started off innocently enough with fruit salad sprinkled with rose water and shredded coconut. A little toast with butter and honey as I sip yerba mate and cook my way through the morning. Innocent enough… but then the leftover cakes got the best of me…
A much-too-sweet breakfast
For breakfast that day, I had flourless lemon and almond cake with yoghurt and a good dollop of candied cumquats and their syrup. A little hedonistic I know, but I figure that hard working cooks deserve to entertain their sweet tooth and if you happen to have a sweet tooth yourself then this cake just demands to be devoured and mmmmm’d all over. Here we go….
The eggs are important. You always want good eggs. I’m blessed here, because the eggs at Zaytuna are literally the best eggs I’ve ever had the pleasure to cook with. You should see the rich yellow mayonnaise these eggs make possible. And you should see how many of them we get. It doesn’t matter how many cakes I bake or frittatas I fry, there always seems to be a couple dozen excellent eggs in the fridge taunting me to do something with them. We’ve got ourselves some pretty productive hens here and the quality of their work is beyond reproach.
The lemons are important too. You want clean healthy juicy delicious lemons for this cake. I was lucky because the bush lemons I used (literally dropping off the trees around here), although not be the prettiest lemons you’ll have ever seen, taste absolutely fantastic – they’re bursting with juice and have a thick zest. Perfect for this cake.
Take 3 lemons and zest them. You only want the yellow part of the skin. Once you get down to the white, it gets bitter. You don’t want that. And you want to zest your lemons straight into your mixing bowl; otherwise you’ll waste the lovely oils a lemon emits while being zested on your chopping board. So get your zest into the bowl and crack in eight good eggs. Pour in 300mls of oil, 400gms of sugar, 300gms of almond meal plus 3 teaspoons of baking powder and mix it all around till it’s all one thing. Pour into a greased cake tin. You can line your tin with greaseproof paper if you want to turn your cake out later or you can cut it straight out of the tin, it’s up to you. But make sure to bake it slow and gentle. 160 Celsius. Test it with a skewer after 40 minutes or so. It’ll still come out kind of wet when the cake’s done but it’s a cooked wet, if that makes any sense. With cakes, you have to trust your instincts. You can usually smell it when a cake is ready.
While you’re waiting for that smell, juice your three zested lemons into a small saucepan and add an equal amount of sugar, some crushed cardamon pods, a stick of cinnamon, a clove, some star anise, maybe a few strands of saffron and a kiss before you set it onto a low heat to slowly infuse and reduce into a beautifully aromatic syrup. Strain and pour this syrup onto your baked cake as soon as it comes out of the oven. Let it cool. Enjoy.
After I finished enjoying my cake I felt inspired to eat more cake. In this case, another leftover goodie in the form of a guava, date and walnut tart. Yes, it is as delicious as it sounds and this is how to make it….
Date and walnut tart
For the pastry, you take 400gms of self-raising flour, 200gms of chopped butter and a handful of sugar and you mix this up till it feels and looks a little like wet sand. Then you lightly whisk 2 eggs + 1 yolk, and throw it into the wet sand. Play with the mix until it’s dough. It’s like being a kid. Have fun. When you’re done, pat the dough down into a flattish disk (between 2 sheets of baking paper works best) and whack it into the fridge for a while. When it’s chilled, take to it with a rolling pin and turn it into a thin sheet of sweet pastry dough. Keeping the dough wedged between the sheets of baking paper makes this easy. You peel one side off and flip the whole thing into your greased tart tin. Peel the back off and gently work the dough into the tin. Trim and fill.
Now, you can fill it with anything you want. Filling it with quince paste is a classic. But for this one, I took a block of guava paste and forked it soft and creamy with a little boiling water spiked with rose water. Then I chopped up some dates and walnuts and squished it all together. Make sure to take a big tablespoon of the stuff and shove it into your mouth before you fill the base. It’s the best. Do this, then take all your leftover dough and pin it down into a sheet. Then you take a pizza cutter or knife and cut the sheet into ribbons to decorate your tart all fancy-like with the ribbons of dough interlaced and merged with the edge like a pretty shell that will soon turn into a sweet crumbly thing of delight.
Yum…! But I had too much. And I must confess that I also heaped a mound of sweet and sticky candied cumquat goodness on a lump of buttered sourdough still steaming from the morning bake. Twice I did this. There was some chocolate there somewhere. Turkish delight. Two litres of hot water through the mate gourd. What was I thinking?
Lazy Lunch and Lovely Dinner
I laze around for the rest of my day off, reading in the hammock by my caravan, watching the busy bees at work on the wild tobacco while I read about their amazing queens. I stop only to eat sardines and hardboiled eggs on crackers with avocado and lots of olive oil and salt. Perfect. Then it gets better when I get an invite to dinner from Nadia and Geoff and am treated to one of Nadia’s Jordanian feasts with lots of different tasty things happening on my plate. I eat it all up. Her braised and falling-off-the-bone lamb cutlets were the standout. Mmmm…. I should have made a dessert. A crème caramel would have been great….
Postscript: The crème caramel
It’s Monday night and I haven’t managed to make the crème caramel yet, but I did crack 50 eggs or so today in anticipation of tomorrow’s attempt. I’m going to make lots of it and possibly infuse my milk with cumquat peel. My diners are sure to smash the thing and I want enough for leftovers…. Some habits are impossible to break…. Sweet dreams.