Monthly Archives: March 2017

‘Meredith’s’ ode to cooks

We may live without poetry, music, and art;
We may live without conscience, and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilised man cannot live without cooks.

He may live without books — what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope — what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love — what is passion but pining?
But where is the man who can live without dining?

bgtp‘Owen Meredith’, Lucile, 1860

Owen Meredith was the nom de plume of English statesman and poet Edward Robert Lytton Bulwer-Lytton, 1st Earl of Lytton and son of novelists Edward Buller-Lytton and Rosina Doyle Wheeler.

Memory in the kitchen

bwt2In the most recent issue of the wonderful Bread Wine & Thou is a beautifully written piece by Melbourne writer Ramona Barry. In it she recounts her journey with cancer and its impact upon her family’s life at the table.  It is an extraordinarily moving piece, and there is really nothing to do but go and read it.

In the midst of Barry’s piece is this little ode to the virtues of the home cook and her capacity, even in the midst of life at its worst, to hold a family together through the most menial practice of memory in the kitchen.

Nostalgia can play an important part in professional cooking. Just look to Heston Blumenthal trying to recreate summer holidays with his now famously sensorial dish ‘Sounds of the Sea’. On the flip side it is memory that the domestic cook relies on, day in and day out.

Memory helps to get food on the table in a timely manner and take into account everyone’s dietary requirements. These are the details that you need to learn intuitively and over time. There is no explaining to the non-cooks in the family that to do a proper roast dinner you must start preparing at 4pm to get it on the table by 7pm. Nothing is more frustrating than watching kitchen interlopers swanning in at 6.30 and expecting their lamb shanks with the nightly news.

Memory allows you to be able to cook dinner as a staggered meal, taking into account after-school activities, late meetings and extra guests. You need to be able to throw a meal together when the entire family has collapsed on the couch after a road trip, or half of them are in bed with the flu. You rely on memory to manage the juggling act seamlessly and daily.

Barry’s words are a gentle reminder of the primacy of the home cook in the civilisation of our lives. The domestic matters. It reminds me of the thesis of Michael Symon’s masterful The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks, in which he demonstrates the oft unrecognised role of the household cook.

Cooks have always been in the background—both ever present and unnoticed. Their contributions have seemed too common, pervasive, trivial, unproblematic. Cooks generally have been women, and their achievements overlooked as inglorious and private. They have been restricted to the chopping-board and spice rack. But while each of the cooks’ actions might be infinitesimal, the results have multiplied into civilization.’

Ramona Barry, “An Extra Place at the Table” in Bread Wine & Thou, issue 2, 2016, 86-95.

Michael Symons, The Pudding that Took a Thousand Cooks: The Story of Cooking in Civilisation and Daily Life, Viking, 1998.

Artwork: Jonathan Leaman, ‘A Jan Steen Kitchen’, 1995.


I’ve never been to South America, nor to Spain. My first encounter with an empanada (from the Spanish verb empanar: to wrap or coat in bread) happened when I was living in Los Angeles twenty years ago. I bought one from a street vendor at Venice Beach. While the memory of the vendor is cemented by his bare chest, goanna tattoos and plats, my recollection of the empanada lingers as one I’ve never been able to repeat. The combination of a thin, lardy pastry filled with the most gorgeous, spicy meat concoction was close to heavenly.

The-Cooks-Table-Cover-SmlMy memory was prodded this weekend leafing through Stephanie Alexander’s The Cooks Table. Her recipe for spicy pork empanadas is in turn inspired by two encounters of her own: one in Spain—with a blend of cod fish and egg wrapped in a delicate pastry enhanced with a dash of fino sherry—and the other in Beunos Aires, Argentina—a spicy beef filling encased in a much more robust pastry made with lard.

With my trust more in Stephanie than in me, I decided to give them a go. The result may not have been as heavenly as I remember, but these are seriously good. The polenta blended with the flour and dusted on the bench top makes the pastry almost crisp to the bite. And the filling is a moist and complex blend of tastes that works a treat. The recipe is not too hard and certainly worth a try.

Here’s what you’ll need

IMG_2645For the empanada dough

  • 200 grams of plain flour
  • 50 grams of polenta
  • Seal salt
  • 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil
  • 40 grams of melted butter
  • 2 tablespoons of fino sherry
  • 60 mils of water

IMG_2644For the filling

  • 60 mils of olive oil
  • 250 grams of minced pork
  • 1 onion, finely diced
  • 100 grams of preserved piquillo peppers, drained and roughly chopped
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons of roughly chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 teaspoon of fennel seeds, ground using a pestle and mortar
  • ½ teaspoon of hot chilli paste
  • 1 tablespoon of homemade tomato sauce or a good quality passata
  • 1 teaspoon of smoked paprika
  • A pinch of sea salt
  • 1 egg, lightly whisked

Here’s what you do

To make the dough

  • Combine the flour, polenta and salt in a large mixing bowl.
  • Mix together the olive oil, butter and sherry and add to the flour mixture.
  • Work the combined ingredients together with your hands, adding in the water as needed, until it forms a ball and comes away from the edges of the bowl.
  • Transfer the dough to a benchtop dusted with flour and knead it for a minute or so.
  • Wrap the dough in plastic film and set aside to rest for an hour while you make the cool the filling.

To make the filling

  • In a large, heavy-based frypan, heat half the olive oil.
  • Add the mined pork and stir with a wooden spoon, cooking the mince until it is evenly cooked, even slightly browned.
  • Tip the mince into a bowl and set aside.
  • Add the remaining oil to the frypan, and saute the onions, piquillo peppers and garlic over medium heat for three minutes or so.
  • Add in the parsley, fennel seeds and chili paste and cook for a few more minutes.
  • Add in the minced pork, tomato sauce or passata, paprika and salt, and cook for a further five minutes, stirring as you do.
  • Set aside to cool a little.

To construct the empanadas

  • Preheat the oven to 220C.
  • Line a large baking tray with baking paper.
  • Dust the benchtop with polenta.
  • Divide the dough into twelve even portions and roll each portion into a disc about 12 centimeters across.
  • Divide the pork filling evenly between the discs.
  • Brush the edges of each disc with the egg wash.
  • Fold over each disc into a half moon shape.
  • Seal the edges of each empanada with a fork and brush each one generously with egg wash.
  • Bake for 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Cool a little before serving. The filling may be hot!

I served mine with a chunky tomato salsa.My son added some sour cream to his. Of, course, they taste great just as they are.



Pear cake

I love pears. They are an elegant fruit, and can add a sense of class to a fruit bowl, or to a meal for that matter. The right pear is a perfect accompaniment for a slow roasted pork, a fine match with ricotta, caramelised onion or balsamic. At the sweet end of things they make the loveliest tart or a seductive finish to French toast.

IMG_2599I’m not so keen on the Nashi variety (a bit a watery non-event in my book) but Packhams, Williams, Bosc, Corella or Winter Nelis … I’m not fussed, they’re all good.

A couple of weeks back we headed up to a friend’s farm in Nagambie and picked a basket full of Buerre Bosc. Delicious. With the left overs I made a pear cake to share at church this morning. Lovely.


  • 4-6 medium-sized pears
  • 150g of butter at room temperature
  • 250g of castor sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • Finely grated rind of two lemons
  • I teaspoon of vanilla essence
  • 2½ cups of plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons of baking powder
  • ½ cup of milk


To prepare the pears

  • Peel, quarter and core the pears, cutting each quarter into three even slices.
  • Add them to a saucepan with ½ cup of water. Cover and simmer for around five minutes. You don’t want to cook the pears as much as blanch or soften them.
  • Drain the pears and set aside to cool.

To make the cake

  • Preheat the oven to 180C.
  • Grease and flour a 20cm springform cake pan.
  • Combine the butter and sugar in an electric mixer and beat for approximately 10 minutes. The mixture should be a lovely creamy texture and the sugar dissolved.
  • Add the eggs one at a time, beating well between additions.
  • Add the lemon zest and vanilla.
  • Combine the flour and baking powder. Sift and add to the mixture along with the milk and blend on low speed for another minute or so.
  • Transfer half of the cake mix into the springform pan and spread evenly.
  • pear-cake-452Add half the pears, fanning them around evenly.
  • Add the remaining cake mix and spread gently and evenly over the pears.
  • Add the remaining pears, fanning out around the top of the cake.
  • Bake for approximately 1¼ hours, or until a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Remember to keep your eye on the cake as it cooks. Should the top of the cake begin to darken too much, you can cover with a loose sheet of foil to keep it from burning.
  • Remove the cake from the oven and allow to cool.

You can dust the top with icing sugar or drizzle over a thin lemon icing (combine some icing sugar, the juice of a lemon and a tablespoon of melted butter), whichever you prefer.

Either way, eat slowly … with coffee, with friends, but not alone. Pears taste better in company.