Friday, 19 February 2016

Nordic Cooking With Magnus Nilsson

The top of my recent Christmas wishlist was of course a cookbook. Not just any cookbook but what I would now consider the Britannica of Nordic cooking. It is the only Nordic cookbook you will ever need because it pretty much covers all that could possibly be out there to know on the subject. If you, like my husband, want to give a gift that will not only impress but intimidate then this is the one. When wrapped and hidden in gift paper your loved one, yet to receive their gift, will assume you have wrapped up a besser block for them and be none the wiser that this besser block is actually the 768 page, aptly titled The Nordic Cookbook by Magnus Nilsson in disguise.

Saveur magazine listed it amongst the best cookbooks of 2015 and if size weighs in on this judgement I am surprised it wasn't THE best cookbook of 2015. But don't let size be your only measurement when it comes to the quality of this cookbook. Crack it open and take a look at what I can only describe as a work of pure obsession. The opening chapter by the author sheds light on the process to bring this book to life and it must be madness. Prior to the research and writing phase of the cookbook itself Magnus sets out to see what else the cookbook market has to offer on the buying all four hundred books about Nordic cooking available on Amazon. Now I don't want to be trivial and immature here but WTF. Firstly who knew there could possibly be four hundred titles on Nordic cooking in existance and what type of person would be possessed to buy them all? Not only buy them all but read them all. And you know what his summary of this cookbook extravaganza was... that almost all four hundred titles on Nordic cooking available on Amazon are crap. Yep you heard it, total crap.

What is a man, not only a man but one of the worlds great chefs to do when presented with the chance to publish yet another Nordic cookbook that could well be number four hundred and one crap Nordic cookbook available on Amazon. Well I guess he decides to nail it, to blow all the others out of the water, to intensely research every aspect of the topic from a culinary and historic perspective and to print the best goddamn book on Nordic cooking the world will ever likely to see, so that is quite simply what he did.

I will be totally upfront with you here. There is some weird shit in this cookbook. Fermented fish, stuffed Puffins, Boiled Seal Intestines with Blubber and Crowberries and how about a little Braised Pilot Whale. Let me just say that again for effect Braised Pilot Whale. I am sorry but I need to say it again WTF? I am not shitting you when I tell you there is a photograph in this book of a group of men, standing knee deep in the ocean that is crimson with the blood of pilot whales, their lifeless carcasses wallowing in waves of their own life source. A part of me wants to be outraged by that photo but as a meat eater I know I have no right to be. As meat eaters in any form we must accept that we kill to eat, the act of eating causes pleasure and therefore we are taking some form of pleasure in taking the life of a living creature for our own consumption. We also need to understand that not all countries consume the same animals as us and that it may offend our sensibilities to see whales being slaughtered and photographed for a cookbook but that very act has deep roots in the history of food and hunting for food in the Nordic region.

That history that is encased within these pages is quite astounding. The food is so diverse yet so linked to the land and nature and what they have to offer us humans for sustenance. There seems to be no lengths the Nordic people won't go to for a feed. Hanging off the side of a cliff to nab a birds eggs right from it's nest in the very place it nested to keep it's young from harm, yeah sure. Rounding up whales to the slaughter, why not? Mastering the art of fishing and foraging amid the ancient woodlands and within the hundreds of thousands of inland lakes that cover this region, of course. Magnus paints a picture of a rugged land and even more rugged people. And whilst many of those people may not still associate with scaling cliffs to scrounge for birds eggs they still hold their recipes that are steeped in that history close to their hearts.

In the two years Magnus spent travelling and researching he found common culinary links that tie the nations in the region together. The people of Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Greenland and the Faroe Islands don't associate themselves as the all-encompassing title "Nordic", they associate with each individual countries national identity but Magnus wanted to present their shared history to highlight what all the nations have in common as well as those unique aspects that set them apart. He compiled over 11 000 articles including recipes, interviews, notes scribbled on napkins, newspaper cutouts, poll data and email conversations. On top of that he had over 8000 photographs. Just imagine the dedication it would take to first compile all of that and then meticulously sift through it all to weed out the important information. In doing this work I am convinced there will never be a need for another Nordic cookbook. There is no stone un-turned in Magnus's obsessive quest for the definitive book on Nordic cooking both past and present.

Getting to the practical side of things if you are like me you won't be able to go down to the supermarket and pick up a puffin to stuff and there won't be any whale meat at your local butchers. Magnus is well aware that not all the recipes are achievable by the average home cook and before you gripe about it he does warn you at the beginning that these recipes are there to complete the picture of the food of the region, not for you to go foraging on the sides of cliffs or wading in pools of blood in search of ingredients. The large majority of the recipes are more practical like roast duck with prunes and apples, now doesn't that sound more appealing. Or how about some lovely homemade almond biscuits with your next cuppa, I think we can all deal with that. I also love the illustrations that hark back to cookbooks of another era. This simple imagery alongside the stunning doubled paged landscape photography found all throughout this book and all taken by Magnus himself makes for one of the most unique cookbooks I have bought in sometime, which is no mean feat as I buy a lot of cookbooks.

Originally posted on Friday, 19 February 2016 by

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

Why Cake Decorators Should Pursue Their Own Aesthetic

When it comes to cake decorating as a creative pursuit the actual design and having free reign over the cake design is one of the most creatively satisfying processes of the job, yet as a cake decorator I found one of the toughest aspects of the job was getting clients or potential clients to see your vision for their cake.

When given free reign I felt I produced my best work. Having no guidelines or a basic colour scheme to work with the process of designing and decorating took on a life of it's own. As the cake comes together it almost speaks to you. The design you started with morphs into something new and usually, hopefully something better. The cakes I have had the greatest feedback from and response online have been purely my own design. Often they are cakes I made for myself like my 30th Birthday Cake that was selected by CosmoBride to appear in their Spring weddings special. That cake was entirely my own vision. I didn't source that look from elsewhere, the solid bright colours were something I hadn't had a chance to work with in my work for clients. It felt bold and fun and I was amazed when it paid off and I got that phone call from Cosmo and was beyond proud when I saw it in print.

The  problem is your vision is just that.... your vision, not your clients. It exists in your head and is bound by your aesthetic. To present that vision as a description or a sketch it loses something in the process. It was near impossible at times to convince brides and grooms to be that you could create a unique, stand out piece for their wedding. I often found clients were more comfortable choosing an image off the internet that is in line with their aesthetic and simply getting a quote on that pre-designed cake. In doing so they are simply looking for a cake decorator with the technical ability to build someone else's design and not an artistic interpretation of their needs.

There are a number of problems with this. Firstly your clients don't get an original cake, you find that some cake designs get re-hashed over and over. You see them in different colour schemes all over the place and it is dull dull dull. The second problem is there is no room for creative licence. If a client has paid for a set design that is what they want. As the cake is formed it doesn't have the freedom to be anything special, to take on those unique flairs that are the true skill of a good decorator. At times I have called clients with changes I would like to make and often that was met with interest but at times that was all too hard. The client wants a replica of the design they had already found, no matter how dull. The final problem from the decorators perspective is that you can never form your own style and that is the greatest loss of all.

If you aren't sure what I mean by your own style or aesthetic I would recommend taking a look at the work of Ron Ben Israel. His abundance of finely hand crafted flowers, fine details and pure elegance are unique to him. I can spot a Ron Ben Israel cake a mile off. Every cake is his vision entirely and I would love to know how he doesn't compromise that vision in the face of clients wanting reproductions of the work of others. However he does it he has created his own brand. Every cake screams him and what he is about, there is no mistaking his work, his aesthetic precedes him.

Ron Ben Israel is the best example of why all cake decorators should doggedly pursue your own vision. Your work becomes your brand, you will become known for the work you produce and the clients will follow. Not only that but you will be fulfilled in only producing work that excites you, that speaks to you and about you. At the end of the day we all got into the game for the creative pursuit. I don't know a single decorator who got into the game for the great wads of money because it just isn't there. So if we are all pursuing a creative vision and satisfaction why not do it your own way. Do better than I did, work endlessly at your aesthetic, make your clients see you aren't merely a robot there to produce the work of others, create what you love and love doing it.

Here are some of the cakes I am most proud of. They are times I have been given creative freedom by the clients or they have been cakes for family where they have trusted me to do my own thing:

This is my personal birthday cake that made it into Cosmo Bride Magazine. Seeing your own work in print is the most rewarding thing

Some of my first wedding cakes. The back cake I created as my first display cake to show off my work and the front cake I was given the brief to create a Bird Cage. That was a challenge and I didn't want it to be heavy with clunky black bars. the client trusted my vision of the white on white.

Another of my first display cakes, I loved this cake as it was all my own vision and it was so popular for weddings. I must have made different versions of this cake a dozen times.

My first online viral hit, the Dalek. 100% my own design which involved a fair bit of structural work, he stood 2 feet tall. This was blogged about around the world in many languages and I saw the awesome power of the internet,

The brief: Make a mountain with dad riding down it in the Tour De France. Okay. 

The brief: Stacked suitcases. the client trusted me to design this cake and do my own thing with the vintage travel stickers. So satisfying.

My first uber Sci- Fi Cake. The brief: A Stargate cake with Teal'c on it. Luckily my hubby is a Stargate fan and made this replica of the gate to exacting precision piping on all the tiny gate details to match the real thing.  This was my first chance to cut loose with the metallic airbrushing, the client was beyond thrilled with the results.

The clients let me get totally carried away with this one. This is the cake where I learnt that exceeding expectations makes for some very happy clients. Making the sorting hat and designing the mystical books of Harry Potter was very creatively satisfying.

Originally posted on Wednesday, 17 February 2016 by

Sunday, 7 February 2016

The Year Of Fresh Cheese, My Foodie Prediction of 2016

"You have to be a romantic to invest yourself, your money, and your time in cheese"
Anthony Bourdain

I'm calling it, that's right I am going out on a limb here and putting all my foodie cred on the line. I have a prediction, it's soft, it's white and it is just a little bit heavenly...yes it is fresh cheese. What is fresh cheese you may ask? Ask away. Fresh cheese is cheese that has not been given time to age and ferment like many of the cheeses we eat so often. When you chomp into that hunk of cheddar, compresses your knife into the firm rind of a Camembert or grate that crumbly Parmesan and sprinkle it onto your pasta you are dealing with a product that was not produced yesterday. It has been aged, sometimes in caves and sometimes for years, often the longer the better and I couldn't say it better than Pauly Shore did in that 90's classic Encino Man "The cheese is old and moldy" quite literally.

So if we all love that ripe funk of a well aged cheese why then am I predicting fresh cheese to be the top of the foodie radar for 2016? Well it may not be as funky as Mark Ronson's Uptown Funk but it will still get your hips gyrating to the beat of the curd.

Fresh cheeses hit my radar in 2015 at my humble local markets here in Bungendore. Artisan Cheese maker Maureen House of "The Cheese Project" was selling a selection of unripened cheeses from a small fridge teetering on a trestle table. The display didn't immediately scream "eat me now" but in overhearing a conversation between Maureen and a customer it was evident that there was a great passion for fresh cheese and as is so often the case, with great passion comes great tastes. We purchased a small lump of halloumi, returned home, cooked it up for lunch and immediately regretted not buying a large lump of halloumi. We cooked it the only way I think really does justice to a great piece of halloumi that is in a fry pan, no oil, cooked till golden brown on both sides and sprinkled with some fresh lemon juice. My first bite of this halloumi I knew it was different to others. The core of the cheese had softened into a divine semi-molten yet still textural mass wrapped in the crisper fried exterior and the taste was so pure. It lacked that rubbery texture that is so common in store bought halloumi and whilst I like the bite of many halloumi's I don't like the overt chewiness some have.

It seemed I was being sent a message from a higher cheese power when I came across Maureen again at a blogging event I attended and she was serving her herbed curds. Prior to this the only thing I knew about curds was that little miss muffet who sat on her tuffet was quite partial too them. I had certainly never eaten them. I curiously scooped up some curds onto a cracker and the slightly tart and gloriously herbed flavour that hit my mouth was a revelation. I was hooked, I just knew that me and fresh cheese were going to be the best of friends.

It all sounds like a lovely story doesn't it, Foodie eats something and enjoys it, just unheard of. I know you are all on the edge of your seats enthralled by my discovery. Well let me finish here. So how can I go out and make such a bold foodie prediction that 2016 will be the year of fresh cheese? That is another story all together and it involves that Italian classic Lasagna.

So I was loving myself silly, eating fresh cheese, bringing it along at Christmas like I was the Christopher Columbus of snack foods and thinking Maureen a slightly crazed genius to leave her secure well paying job as a public servant to head off into the uncharted fields of fresh cheese and then it all went to the next level.

I decided one day I was going to make the mother of all Lasagnas. The pinnacle of layers of pasta, meat and white sauce. I was going to smash it out of the ballpark with a combination of Jamie Oliver's white sauce recipe from Jamie's Italy and a Ragu Di Bologna handed down through generations of Andre Ursini's family and presented by Poh Ling Yeow in the book Same Same But Different. Requiring an excursion to the supermarket we set off around the aisles collecting the required pork, veal, tomatoes, all the usual lasagna suspects. When I came to the cheese fridges I couldn't spot the usual ball of yellowish mozzarella I normally buy. I actually couldn't see any mozzarella except the ready grated variety and if I was going to make the mother of all lasagna's that would just not do. That is when I saw it, something I have never seen and would not expect to see in a stock standard big name supermarket. Fresh, marinated real deal Buffalo Mozzarella. Glancing in through the plastic I could see a pure white ball swimming in a mixture of oil, garlic and spices. I was floored. This was a chain supermarket selling to the masses and certainly not known for artisan products and here I was holding an Australian made fresh buffalo mozzarella and that is when I knew 2016 would be the year of fresh cheese.

In case you want to know how that lasagna turned out I will be publishing a recipe on the blog soon. The buffalo mozzarella in it's soft slightly elastic form went on top of the lasagna in little blobs to become it's crowning glory and I don't think I will ever be able to eat the yellow rubbery supermarket variety ever again.

Originally posted on Sunday, 7 February 2016 by