Monday, June 13, 2016

Best Ever Fruit Cake

How many fruit cakes have your tried in your lifetime?  Well, this is the best one that I have ever had - and it is very easy to make.  In fact, it's my lovely neighbour Belinda Jeffery's recipe, and she calls it 'Last Minute Christmas Cake'.  

It has now become the families' go to recipe for a deliciously moist cake for the festive season, but I make it all through the year, especially in the winter, as everyone loves it - one of those comfort food cakes for a cup of tea on a cold day.  And boy has it been cold - the coldest June in 21 years and us sub-tropical species just aren't made for it!  Time to get baking and get those delicious spicy fruit cake smells wafting through the house.

300g unsalted butter
400g soft brown sugar
1.5 kg dried fruit - currants, raisins, sultanas, dates, prunes, sun-dried apricots.
NOTE:  Make sure that 1 1/4 cups of the mixed fruit are raisins.  Also, the better the quality - the better the cake, so I use preservative free organic fruit - believe me, it makes a difference.
2 tsp bicarbonate soda
1/2 cup brandy (or dark rum/port/muscat)
NOTE:  Don't be afraid that adding alcohol to this cake will make it unsuitable for children - it evaporates in the cooking process.  It is just there to add flavour and preserve the cake.
1 1/2 cups water
2 tsp freshly grated nutmeg
2tsp ground cinnamon
4 eggs, lightly beaten
2 1/2 cups plain wholemeal flour
200g whole peeled almonds and pecans for decorating
Good pinch salt 

This recipe will make one large cake or two cakes of this size.
1.  Melt the butter over a medium heat in a saucepan large enough to hold all the ingredients.
2.  Add the sugar until it dissolves and becomes slushy.
3.  Tip in all the dried fruit, bicarbonate of soda, brandy and water.
4.  Increase the heat to high and stir until all the sugar is dissolved and simmer for 4 minutes.  BEWARE - the bicarb makes it froth up.
5.  Cover and leave overnight or for at least six hours.  You want all the fruit to plump up and be really juicy - this makes the cake deliciously moist.
6.  Preheat oven to 150oC.
7.  Butter and line your cake tins.  If making just one large one, you need a 25 cm round tin.  The round one above is 23cm and the loaf tin 20cm.
8.  Add the nutmeg, cinnamon and beaten eggs to the fruit and stir well.
9.  Add the flour and stir well, leaving it to sit for a few minutes before you scrape into the prepared cake tins. (This is where the grandchildren come in for wish-making and spoon licking!).
10. Tap the full tins lightly on the bench to help raise any large air bubbles and level out the mix.
11. Decorate with almonds/pecans and bake for approx. 2 hours until skewer comes out clean.  This will depend on the size of the tins you have used.  They may take a little more or a little less time.
12.  Leave the cake to cool completely in its tin, on a wire rack, before you take it out.
13.  Will keep in a sealed container in the fridge for a couple of months.

A small helper with a big spoon to lick - I think her wish came true too!

I was prompted to make a couple of these this week to give to my son Nick.  He is an arborist with a tree lopping business and has been working away from home on contract in the New England Tablelands.  Every day he organises a bought cake for his workers for morning tea and says that trying to find something reasonably healthy gets a bit monotonous - the choice being limited to carrot cakes and banana breads. It has been extremely cold out there with frost and snow and I can imagine how hungry they get?

I hope you enjoy this cake as much as Nick and his crew seem to be!

Winter Care of Citrus and Orchard Meadows

Soon the citrus harvest will be over with just a few fruit left hanging on the trees SO....... it's time to get busy - that's if you want a bumper crop next year.  Time to sharpen the loppers, buy some trace elements, bales of mulch and get out there.

It is time to PRUNE, FEED and MULCH those hungry citrus trees - and it doesn't matter whether they are in pots or in the ground - this advice applies to ALL CITRUS.

I recently went to help a friend of mine prune her old, but prolific, citrus trees and she reckons we are in for a wet winter so it's time to get those outdoor jobs while we can.


1. Branches hanging on the ground.
2. Crossing branches in the middle which rub together and then can be a site for pest and disease attack.
3.Tree getting too tall to be able to reach fruit.
4. Dry, cracked and bare ground under the tree.
1.  Taking out some the large inner branches, as well as lifting the skirt off the ground, allows for better airflow through your citrus and helps to deter diseases.
2.  My retired farming friend, who used to be a commercial citrus grower, says not to be too timid when pruning and was just about to take to this tree with a pair of shears "just to give it a final haircut".  Her tip - don't let your trees get too tall so that you can't reach the fruit.

FACT: Pruning actually encourages more growth and flowering - and that means more fruit.

TOP TIP:  Gardeners are often reluctant to prune while there is still some fruit on the tree, immature or otherwise - but you have to do it sometime!  If you leave it until late in the winter you will be cutting off the developing flowering buds.  Here are a couple of ways I use up that excess fruit.
1.  Juice the fruit and make frozen ice cubes which you can store in the freezer until you need them.
2.  Make preserved lemons and limes, which will keep for ages, by salting them.  Here's how: 
*Cut the washed fruit into quarters and stuff into sterilised jars - salt the bottom first.
*With every layer of fruit add some salt.
*Top up with squeezed fresh juice.
*Weight down with a stone that you have cleaned with boiling water so that all the fruit is under the liquid.
*100g salt per 500ml jar.
* I add bay leaves to the lemons - you can add cloves and cinnamon.
* Ready to use in a month or so.  Wash the preserved fruit and discard the fruit pulp and white pith - you just want the skin - slice thinly

HOW TO USE:  Preserved Limes - with fish and seafood.  Lemons - Couscous, Middle Eastern dishes, tagines.  Try this delicious lamb tagine dish - it needs 2 preserved lemons.
The street where we used to live in Sydney copping a huge storm

1..  The whole of the east coast of Australia has just experienced a terrific storm with some folk on the North Coast, where I live,  getting over 400mm in 24 hours (annual average 1,500mm) which means, for us gardeners, that many of the nutrients in the soil get washed away (along with the assortment of shoes from the flooded front porch!).  SO - with the portent of a wet winter, it's time to care for your citrus trees - AND the best way to do that is by caring for the soil - that means FEEDING it and not leaving the soil bare, and MULCHING.

2.  Note the tree in the top photo after we had finished. No more bare earth under under the trees.  Each tree has been mulched out to the drip line - in this case with spent straw from a horse stable, but you can use anything; wood chips, composted grass clippings, spent sugar cane, lucerne - just about whatever you can lay your hands on.

3.  An organic, pelleted, slow-release fertiliser (macronutrients) is the way to go together with a dose of trace elements (micronutrients).

TOP TIP: Grow your own mulch!  Plants some clumps of COMFREY and LEMON GRASS around your orchard - these can be slashed regularly and used as a green mulch.  WHY - COMFREY has a long tap root and mines up minerals from deep in the soil, it also has a low carbon to nitrogen ratio so can be used fresh - unlike most green material - it won't rob the soil of nitrogen as it breaks down. LEMON GRASS has essential oils that act as a passive pest control when the fresh leaves are used as mulch - for its size it also produces a lot of leaves.

AND NOW - for all of those folk who have an orchard and are interested in making a smaller footprint - READ ON

From This
Making our patch more like a living organism and less like an artificial, unsustainable experiment just makes common sense to me - do yourself and the environment a favour and eliminate the need for ALL OF THE ABOVE; continual mowing, weeding, feeding and mulching.

HOW: by making your orchard, 
less work to maintain, more productive AND more beautiful.

To This

COVER CROPS provide a living carpet of perennial plants for orchards.  A 'living mulch' of low growing legumes,  grasses and other wildflowers can provide many advantages, especially compared to exotic lawn grass (kikuyu,couch and buffalo) which aggressively competes with your fruit trees for water and nutrients - and you have to mow it!  

The best way to start is with a LEGUMINOUS COVER CROP.  Legumes are plants such as lucerne, pea and bean family, medics and chickpeas.

WHY IS THIS A GOOD IDEA FOR ALL ORCHARDS?: How about feeding the soil with the plants that are growing there?
  • Legumes have the ability to fix nitrogen from the air onto their roots which then becomes available, via the soil, to other plants.  Nitrogen is a major element needed for plant growth.
  • Protects valuable topsoil from rain and wind erosion.
  • Suppresses weeds without the use of herbicides.
  • Improves the health of your soil by increasing organic matter, earthworms and vital microorganisms.
  • Reduces compaction of the soil by frequent mowing.
  • Prevents hardpans and soil cracking and brings up minerals from deep within the soil.
  • Improves water, root and air penetration of the soil.
  • Provides nectar and pollen for beneficial insects and reduces populations of pests by providing a more balanced, diverse and natural habitat.
  • Looks wonderful - if you would rather have the buzz of insects than the sound of a mower, and the flit of butterflies and birds on the wing - then this is for you.
  • Is ultimately less work and saves you money - have you seen the price of a bale of lucerne lately?

  • NITROGEN NODULES on the roots of broad beans

1.  It's obviously much easier to do this when establishing a new orchard as you need bare earth to sow the seed in.  Seeds are available from any rural seed supplier.
2.  How to get rid of existing grass:
  • There are new organically certified herbicides on the market that are based on pine oil called Weed Blitz - though I have yet to try it. (Recommended by Green Harvest Company that also sells cover crop seeds)
  • Hire a steam weeder to kill the grass - being used more and more by Councils and road side authorities as alternative to harmful herbicides.
  • For smaller areas - sheet mulch with cardboard and straw.
3.  Now for an important little bit of science.  The fixing of nitrogen by legumes from soil air require the presence of species specific bacteria (rhizobia) so it's important to buy seeds that have already been inoculated with the relevant rhizobia as your soil will probably be deficient in these important bacteria.

4.  Make sure you have summer (e.g. cowpeas, lab lab, soybeans, desmodium, siratro) and winter ( e.g.lupins, vetch, oats, ryegrass) growing crops as you want year round cover. 

5.  Add a grass seed to your cover crop -  including native grasses and others like oats, barley and ryegrass - has many benefits including; increasing organic matter and carbon input, encourages smaller seed eating birds and more beneficial insects. 

6.  Orchards with a lot of shade (macadamias, mangoes and avocados).  The DPI (Department of Primary Industry) recommends the native Smothergrass Dactyloctenium austral and Amarillo peanut Araelus pinto.
Cover crop seeds for sale in our local Rural Co-op


1.  Once your new meadow is established slash as required!!!!  This may only be a couple of times a year!!!!!  Important to do it once in the late summer to encourage re-seeding.  Leave anything you have slashed to rot down.  Re-seed any bare patches - then just sit back and ENJOY IT.

Go to this link by the NSW DPI for lots of useful information.

Guess what Prince Charles gave his mother to celebrate the 60th anniversary of her coronation (no, it wasn't a corgi) - a MEADOW in every county rescued from abandoned waste ground. 


Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Balinese Chicken Curry

This follows on from the previous post about turmeric and about eating your way to good health - and, while we are at it we might as well have something seasonal and delicious!  And, the absolutely best thing about making a curry like this is the heavenly fragrance that wafts throughout the house when it's being prepared.

Ubud, Bali, on the road to Kaliki

So this is a curry paste that you can make from either fresh or dried ingredients and keep it refrigerated to make up a quick curry of either chicken, tofu or vegetables.

I have spent many happy and fascinating times in Indonesia and am a big fan of it's little known cuisine (how many Indonesian restaurants do you have in your town?) - this is one such dish.  If you like Indian curries, you will be surprised at the freshness and pungency of this dish by comparison - give yourself, and your taste buds a treat and try it.

This photo shows three members of the ginger family which I have just harvested and use fresh in this recipe - common ginger, galangal and turmeric. Fresh ingredients, if you can get them, are always going to give a superior flavour to dried.

Freshly prepared spice paste
1 brown onion
5 cloves garlic
4 large red chillies (this is a matter of taste so adjust to yours)
Extra small, birds eye chillies if you like it really hot.
1 tbsp chopped fresh ginger
2 tbsp chopped fresh, or dried, galangal
NOTE: A traditional Balinese recipe would also call for lesser galangal kaempfera galanga, but I have never been able to buy it in Australia except in a stale old powdered form, so I leave it out. Meanwhile, I'm hunting for a plant to grow in the garden.  
1 tbsp chopped fresh, or dried, turmeric
1 tbsp fresh coriander roots (or stems if unavailable)
1 tbsp tamarind pulp
Zest of 2 limes (substitute makrut/kaffir limes if you have them)
1/2 tsp shrimp paste (leave out if vegan)
1/3 cup toasted raw cashew nuts
NOTE: In Bali they would use candlenuts, but I find that the ones you can get in Australia are old and rancid so cashews or macadamias are the best option.  They are used to thicken the paste and make it more creamy
1 tsp black peppercorns
2 tsp coriander seeds
1 tsp cumin seeds
1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
1 tbsp palm sugar
2 tbsp coconut or peanut oil

An old travel diary from Bali and my attempts to work out the botanical names of the the spice mix after a cooking class in Ubud.
1.  Apart from the oil, process all of the ingredients in a food processor until a thick paste is formed - you may want to add a little of the oil to combine it.
TOP TIP:  After you have combined all the ingredients, leave them in the food processor for about 20 minutes to soften and then re-process - you will get a finer paste this way.
2.  Heat the remaining oil in a wok and fry the spices over a medium flame, stirring constantly, for 2-3 minutes until the mix is glossy and golden.
NOTE:  When this has cooled it can be stored in clean jars in the fridge with a little oil on top until ready for use.

Makrut Lime Citrus hystrix (old Kaffir Lime) using the zest of the fruit and leaves in this dish

Chicken Curry Balinese Style
750g free range chicken pieces
3 tbsp coconut or peanut oil
4 makrut/kaffir lime leaves
2 stalks lemon grass, bruised
1 cup water
1 cup coconut cream
Sea salt to taste
Fresh lime and coriander leaves for serving

1.  Cut the chicken into curry sized pieces
2.  Heat the oil in a wok and throw in the chicken pieces and stir around for a couple of minutes.
3.  Add 2 tbsp of the curry paste and stir around to coat the chicken.  Throw in the lime leaves and bruised stalks of lemon grass.
4.  Add the water and cook uncovered until the chicken is tender and the water is reduced by half.
5.  Add salt to taste.
6.  Add the coconut cream and briefly bring to the boil just before serving. Serve with rice.
NOTE: Potatoes, beans or carrots may be added and tofu or tempe served instead of 
Balinese Chicken Curry

"Whosoever offers to me with devotion a leaf, a flower, a fruit or water - that offering of love, of the purest heart I accept"
Mahabharata (sacred Hindu text)