Cook this: Cinnamon-free hot cross buns

Happy Easter! I’m a chocoholic, so I’ll be continuing to gorge myself with chocolate this weekend. But the other part of Easter is hot cross buns, which I’ve never been able to partake in, because I hate cinnamon.

It makes me ill – the smell of it literally makes me gag. But I love bready things, and I hate that I don’t have an excuse to eat delicious little buns smothered in butter for breakfast for a week at this time of the year. So I thought I’d try making my own.

Turns out they’re actually pretty easy to make, the removal of cinnamon does nothing to harm the structural integrity, and because they’re not technically hot cross buns, these delicious sweet little raisin rolls can be made sans cross and eaten all year round now! This simple recipe was adapted from Taste.com.au:

Ingredients (makes 12 large or 16 medium buns)
– 4 cups plain flour
cup caster sugar
– pinch of salt
– 2 x 7g dried yeast sachets
– 1½ heaped cups raisins (or any other dried fruit, like cranberries or apricots)
– 50g butter
– 1¼ cups of milk
– 2 eggs, beaten

Method:
1. In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, salt, yeast and dried fruit – set aside.

2. Set a small saucepan over low heat and melt the butter in it. Then add the milk and heat it for a minute – pour the mixture into the large bowl, along with the eggs, and stir together with the blade of a butter knife.

3.Use your hands to bring the dough together, and turn it out onto a floured board to knead for a few minutes. Alternatively, you can use a kitchen mixer with a bread hook to do this.

4. Place the dough into a large bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and sit it in a warm room for an hour and a half to “grow.”

5. Line an oven tray with baking paper, and bring the dough back to the kitchen. Knead in for a minute, to shrink it back down, and divide the dough into 12 – 16 equal pieces. Roll them into balls and place them on the tray, leaving a little space in between – cover them back up with plastic and put them back in the warm room to rise again for another half an hour.

6. Pre-heat the oven to 180°C, and if you want crosses on top, now’s the time to add them. Just mix a half cup of plain flour with a few tablespoons of water to make a thick paste, and either pipe the goop onto the buns in a cross, or be lazy like me and spread it over carefully with a teaspoon.

7. Then all you need to do is bake them for 25 minutes, let them cool, smother then in butter or jam, and enjoy! Keep them for a few days in an airtight container, or freeze them like you would with normal bread to enjoy later.

 

A Introduction to Mardi Gras – and a visit to Mardi Gras World, New Orleans

Happy Mardi Gras!!! Ok, so I’m a day early, but it’s Monday morning and thought we could all do with starting the week on a high! Other than flashy parades and copious amounts of drinking, those of us who don’t hail from New Orleans really don’t know a hell of a lot about the big day. Husband and I knew a little more about it from books we’d read and some documentaries we’d seen, but we knew there was still a lot we didn’t understand. So when we made our return to New Orleans late last year, we decided to visit Mardi Gras World to learn a little more. Before we get to that, let’s look at the basics…

WHAT IS ‘MARDI GRAS’?
Those of you familiar with Easter celebrations have probably heard of Ash Wednesday. And if you’re an Aussie kid, you’ve definitely heard of Shrove Tuesday and ate pancakes for breakfast at school to celebrate; Mardi Gras, which translates as “Fat Tuesday,” is the same thing as Shrove Tuesday, falling the day before Ash Wednesday.

GREAT, BUT WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH THE PARADES AND PARTIES THAT GO ON IN NEW ORLEANS?
Ok, let’s break it down as simply as possible for those who don’t have a Catholic background…

– Ash Wednesday = the first day of Lent.

– Lent = the 40 days leading up to Palm Sunday during which practicing Catholics often give up something they usually enjoy (like chocolate or their favourite TV show) as a symbolic act of repentance and fasting.

– Palm Sunday = the Sunday before Easter, the first ‘celebration’ day of the season after the 40 days of fasting.

AND THE TUESDAY THAT IS MARDI GRAS?
– Mardi Gras = the last day before the 40 days of fasting and repentance begins. The celebration of Mardi Gras in New Orleans is basically rooted in the idea that if you’re going to be fasting and repenting and behaving for the next 40 days, why not overindulge in good food and booze and party like a maniac the night before?!

OK, SO WHAT’S THE DEAL WITH THE PARADES NEW ORLEANS HOLDS TO CELEBRATE?
No doubt you’ve seen photos or footage of the apparent carnage that is Mardi Gras in New Orleans; it’s actually a lot more organised and symbolic than it may first appear. To understand that, let me go back a bit and explain the ‘who’ behind the parades first.

Parades are organised by krewes, which are essentially social aid clubs. Membership is incredibly prestigious, can be quite pricey, and members take enormous pride in the events they organise and partake in. The New Orleans Tourism Marketing Corporation kindly list the city’s krewes on their website if you’d like to see read a little more about them.

The parades you see, with the big floats and costumed marchers are the culmination of what is usually 12 months work from the members of the city’s krewes (as in, once Mardi Gras is over, they start working on next year’s almost immediately). They commission and finance the floats and costumes, spending endless hours working on them, and the end result is those visually overwhelming parades. And the parades are fabulous, but knowing more about the work that goes into them has given me a much bigger appreciated for it all this year.

It has to be said that this is a very basic explanation of an event that is incredibly intricate and steeped in more tradition than I could possibly hope to cover in one blog post – we haven’t even touched king cakes, Mardi Gras Indians or the beads you see revelers wearing! You can head on over to Mardi Gras New Orleans to learn a little more, but hopefully that all makes a bit more sense, and will help explain what made us decide to visit Mardi Gras World…

Mardi Gras World
1380 Port of New Orleans Pl
http://www.mardigrasworld.com/

When I talk about the floats used in the parades, they’re not some cute little hand pulled wagons. They’re enormous – as in, the size of buses or coaches. Absolutely huge. So it’s fair to say the krewes couldn’t be making them all themselves – who’d have a workshop that big?! That’s where Mardi Gras World come in; Mr Blaine Kern, who started to learn the craft from his father, Roy, and later apprenticed with float and costume makers around Europe, started working on behalf of the city’s krewes (you can read more about the Kerns here). The family business now has 15 warehouses around the city where they build floats all year round for the Mardi Gras season. And you thought it was just a day of partying once a year…

For USD$20pp, you can tour one of their warehouses, see some of the artists at work, and learn a hell of a lot about the process of creating these colossal works of art. A few fun facts we learned during our tour…

– The large floats are owned by individual krewes and are stripped each year and re-decorated with new pieces.

– Old props are kept at the warehouses to potentially be re-decorated and re-used by other krewes.

– To create the pieces adorning the floats, the artists use a lot of old school papier mache over polystyrene, which they then paint over.

– There are around 60 odd krewes that each hold a parade over Mardi Gras period – that means 60 different floats and costumes for every. Single. Parade.

 

And if that doesn’t make you want to check it out for yourself, maybe some of those photos I took in there will! Now, to find a way to get back to New Orleans at Mardi Gras time…

Cook this: Cadbury Creme Egg Easter Brownies

Being a chocoholic, Easter is obviously my favourite holiday, and Cadbury Creme Eggs are my favourite treats of the season. The big ones are getting too sugary for me these days, but I find the little ones just right – they have a much better chocolate to filling ratio, which is important to me when we’re talking filled eggs.

I have absolutely no idea where I found this recipe; it was scrawled into one of my recipe books about 6 of 7 years ago, and I’ve always loved baking it for Easter! Given that we’re going to be away for Easter this year (and even if we weren’t, no one in my family really eats the cakes and sweets I bake anymore), I thought I’d make a batch for some friends who kindly invited us over for dinner last weekend : )

 

Ingredients:
– 250g milk chocolate
– 150g butter
– 1 cup brown sugar
– 3 eggs, lightly beaten
– 1 tsp vanilla extract
– 1 cup plain flour
– 1 packet of mini creme eggs, wrappers removed

Method:
1. Pre-heat the oven to 180C and line a rectangular cake tin with baking paper.
2. Melt the chocolate and butter in a bowl over a pot of simmering water, stirring continuously.
3. Once melted, remove the bowl from the heat and stir in the sugar.
4. Stir in the eggs and vanilla next until fully incorporated, then the flour.
5. Lastly, fold in the creme eggs and pour the mixture into the prepared tin.
6. Bake for 30 minutes and cool in the tin for 5-10 minutes before transferring to a cooling rack to finish cooking.

Cook this: quick & healthy – lamb, haloumi & lentil salad

Every culture has their Easter traditions, most of them having something to do with food. Lamb is a popular choice in a lot of cultures, particularly European; references to the “sacrificial lamb” as a symbol of the crucified Christ pepper the writings in the Bible. While I’m not a religious person, I thought that I’d try to do a lamb dish at home this Easter long weekend; we had some beautiful Melbourne sunshine, despite the colder temperatures, as well as plenty of chocolate, so I went with a light salad option; it turned out surprisingly well, so I won’t be waiting for Easter to cook with lamb again!

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INGREDIENTS (for 2)
– small lamb back strap, around 200-300g
– salt, pepper and dried basil
– 100g haloumi cheese, sliced
– 1 tin lentils, drained
– 1 cup cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered
– ¼ cup fresh mint leaves

 

METHOD
1. Season your lamb with a little salt, pepper and basil. Two options to cook your lamb are:
a) fire up the BBQ , sear it on a lightly oiled hot plate for 2-3min on each side. Then, move it off the direct heat, close the BBQ lid and cook for another 5 – 10 minutes, depending on how you like your meat cooked and how thick the back strap is.
b) sear the lamb on a hot pan on the stove with a little oil over high heat for 2-3min on each side, then transfer to the oven and cook 5 – 10 minutes (to your preference) at around 170°C.

2. While your lamb is resting after cooking, prepare the salad – throw the lentils, baby spinach and tomatoes together in a large bowl with a drizzle of olive oil.

3. Heat a non-stick fry pan over high heat and cook the sliced haloumi for a minute or two on each side, until it bubbles and turns a little golden and soft.

4. Divide the salad between two plates, top with the haloumi, sliced lamb back strap and mint leaves.

We stumbled upon an Easter parade in the streets of Florence…

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Easter 2013. I was in Italy. It was our last night in Florence, and we were to leave for Venice in the morning by train. We had been up since around 7am and hadn’t stopped all day. We were absolutely exhausted and would be needing our energy for Easter lunch the following day with mum’s family. So, we took the excuse to be completely pathetic and get an early night, turning it at around 9pm.

Around an hour or so later, we woke with a start to yelling, cheering, drumming, trumpeting. Our hotel, located so close to Il Duomo you could almost count the individual tiles that made up it’s intricate facade, was unwittingly also smack bang in the middle of all the action! We threw open our room windows, wrapped blankets around our shoulders to ward off the unseasonably cold spring wind, and watched the most fantastic parade wind it’s way around the dark streets below. After 20 minutes, our exhaustion got the better of us and we finally fell asleep to the beat of the marching drummers. It was a little too dark for a photo that night, but below is the scene from our hotel window the following morning, before we checked out…

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The following morning, we rose early to take advantage of the few hours we had left in Florence before our midday train. Down the stairs we went, emerging onto a busy street. It was Easter Sunday and our hotel was only a few metres from one of the greatest churches in Europe. The craziness was to be expected. We started walking, aimlessly, through the streets when we heard it again; the drumming. We scurried along, trying to follow the sounds of the drummers, bursting from a small side street onto a larger street upon this…

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We found the parade! A cursory check of the watch indicated a solid two hours before we needed to be back at our hotel to check out, so we followed the parade, in all it’s noisy glory, all the way to it’s final destination, la Piazza della Signoria. We watched the flag throwing, the elaborately costumed paraders and the other people gathered around. We noticed a well dressed gentleman being followed by an attentive security detail, wishing everyone a buona pasqua (happy Easter), shaking hands, smiling for photos, kissing babies, that kinda thing. We shook his hand, too, when he got to us, also wishing him a buona pasqua (I did, anyway; husband had absolutely no idea what he was saying, he just smiled and nodded politely). When we finally did get back to the hotel, I asked the lady who checked us out who he was. She swooned a little and told us he was the Mayor of Florence, and the pick of the people to be Italy’s next Prime Minister. He was Matteo Renzi, and is now, indeed, Italy’s Prime Minister. Absolutely lovely man, by the way!

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That was one hell of an Easter day, one I’ll never forget, and one of those days that makes me eternally grateful for the fact that I chose to follow the crowd and allow myself to get caught up in the moment that day. While I’m not a religious person, it was beautiful to see all of these people celebrating old traditions so happily and with so much gusto. I hope everyone, no matter where you are in the world, no matter what your traditions are, has a wonderful Easter  : )

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Cook this: vanilla bean powder Easter biscuits 

Happy Easter! I hope everyone’s enjoying the holiday, the time off work, the time spent with family and friends, the chocolate and other Easter treats! I’m a massive chocolate addict, but I figured there’d be enough chocolate going around for Easter, so I wanted to do something a little different; also, I know not everyone loves chocolate as much as me. I love baking cookies, and found some Easter themed cookie cutters I had tucked away in a drawer in the kitchen. I made a batch of tea cookies last week to bring in to work, and also visited Terra Madre recently where I bought some vanilla bean powder. Throw all of that together and you’ve got cookies made with vanilla bean powder infused butter, which can be made for any occasion, not just Easter  : )

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Ingredients:
– 100g butter, chopped
– 3 tsp vanilla bean powder (I get mine from Terra Madre in Northcote)
– 100g caster sugar
– 1 egg at room temperature
– 1 tsp vanilla extract (should have used more!!)
– 200g plain flour
  

 

Method – this is the same as the way you’d make the tea cookies:
1. Melt the butter and stir in the vanilla bean powder. Set aside until the butter has solidified again, but still soft – this will take around an hour or so.

2. Beat the soft butter (not melted!) and the caster sugar on medium/high speed with an electric mixer for around 3 – 5min, or until really smooth, lighter in colour and creamy.

3. Add in the egg and vanilla, and keep beating until totally combined and smooth (another minute or so).

4. Sift in the flour and mix until a thick dough comes together (you may want to use your hands to really bring it together) – roll that big clump of dough into a ball, wrap it in cling wrap, and sit it in the fridge for 30 minutes.

5. Pre-heat the oven to 170˚C and line a big baking tray (or 2 smaller ones) with non-stick paper.

6. Take the dough out of the fridge and roll it out between two sheets of non-stick baking paper to a thickness you’re happy with, and cookies out of whatever shape or size you want.

7. Lay them on the tray (they won’t expand so you can put them fairly close together), and bake for 12 – 15 minutes, or until they are just getting a light golden edge.

8. Let them cool for a 5-10 minutes on the tray, then transfer them to a cooling rack. Then, decorate as you wish! Clearly, as you can see above with that blue and red circled cookie, my decorating skills and steadiness of hand leave much to be desired hehehe

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