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pumpkin feta tarts

Basic shortcrust pastry is so so so easy, I don’t get it why people buy frozen?  Puff pastry, ok, that’s  a bit tricky (but still worth making your own).  Phyllo, yep, right, I buy that most of the time.  But shortcrust – nah,  it takes less to make your own than it does to peel off that blue plastic, and you get to use real butter and no nasty transfats.

The recipe quantities and temperatures and times are a bit vague, because it really doesn’t matter too much.  The more butter (and the less water) in your pastry, the more melt-in-the-mouth it is, but also the harder to handle (and the more calories).  If you use lots of butter, you need to get it quite cool, or the butter melts as you are trying to roll it out and it gets sticky.  But it’s very delicious and you can make the pastry quite thick and the star of the dish.  If you are in a hurry, or the pastry is not the star of the dish, you can go light on the butter and roll it out thin for a more cracker-like pastry that is easy to handle.

That’s it really.  All the rest is elaboration on the theme.

You can use cream or sour cream or oil in place of butter, but it works like melted butter and the pastry is harder to handle and might need to be rolled between sheets of greaseproof paper.  If you have an egg white elsewhere in a recipe, you can substitute an egg yolk for part of the butter and it makes it slightly less “short” but still delicious and easier to handle than all butter.  Any saturated fat (that sets solid at room temperature) can be substituted for the butter and you are just thinking about the taste rather than the texture. If you are using a low fat pastry and a low fat filling, a bit of “blind baking” first stops the filling soaking into the pastry and making it soggy.  Blind baking just means covering your pastry with greaseproof paper and filling with uncooked beans, or rice, or chickpeas or something similar, and cooking for 10 minutes or so before filling.  The beans are dry already so it doesn’t hurt them.  If the pastry, or the filling, has a lot of butter, oil, cheese or eggs it, the pastry won’t go soggy and there’s usually no need.

The flour needs to be flour – it is the little grains of starch in it exploding that makes pastry. It can be wholemeal or unbleached, but other flours like besan behave differently.  You can make pastry from them but it is a different story.  Self-raising flour is a different story too.

The recipe makes 12 tartlets. They are perfect for lunch boxes, or party finger food – which is where these went. These are really quick and simple, and they were a party hit.

The Pastry:

You can do this in a food processor, or just cut the butter into tiny cubes and rub it into the flour with your fingertips, till it resembles breadcrumbs. (My nanna used to say that the best pastry makers have cool hands, because the object of the exercise is to have tiny flecks of un-melted butter mixed through the flour.)

  • 1 cup of wholemeal plain flour (wholemeal or unbleached)
  • 2 heaped dessertspoons of cold butter
  • pinch salt

Add just enough cold water to make a soft dough.  Add it  carefully, spoonful at a time.  Put your dough in the fridge to cool down while you start the pumpkin off.

The Filling:

Peel, dice, and roast a cup and a half of pumpkin and one larg-ish red onion.  Dice the pumpkin into 1 to 1.5 cm dice.  You can sprinkle with a bit of fresh thyme if you have some.  It will cook really quickly – you’ll just have time to roll out the  pastry.

Blend together:

  • 2 eggs
  • a big dessertspoon of plain yoghurt (or cream, or sour cream)
  • 100 grams Danish or Greek feta (the smooth kind, preferably)
  • A little grating of parmesan

I use my food processor for the pastry, then without needing to wash it, for the filling.  But you could also just beat them together with an egg beater.

Assembling and baking:

Grease 12 muffin tins or tart cases.

On a floured benchtop, roll the dough out, cut out 12 circles and line the tart cases.  My regular sized muffin tray is perfect for this, and the lid from one of my large storage jars is perfect for cutting the pastry out.

Spoon the pumpkin and onion evenly into the tart cases. Spoon the egg and feta mix evenly over them.

Bake in a medium-hot oven for around 20 to 30 minutes, till the tart cases are crisp and colouring and the egg mix is set.

They are best is you let them cool before eating. No Teo, they aren’t cool yet.

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I’m loving my gem iron.  I found it in an op shop, and it’s the perfect implement for breakfast baking because gems are so very fast.    This recipe takes just minutes to make – with a bit of practice you can probably have it on the breakfast table within less than 15 minutes. And gone within 20. If you can manage to make enough for leftovers, they go well in a lunch box.  If you can manage to make leftovers.

The Recipe:

Turn the oven on to  high and put the gem iron on the top shelf. It needs to be sizzling hot before you put the batter in.

For a dozen gems, mix together:

  • a generous ½ cup of  polenta
  • a generous ½ cup plain flour
  • good teaspoon of baking powder
  • good pinch salt

Whisk together

  • 1 large egg
  • a generous half cup of buttermilk (or substitute  plain low fat yoghurt mixed 50/50 with water)
  • a dessertspoon of olive oil

Mix the wet mix into the dry mix.  Just whisk them together – don’t overmix. You will end up with a  batter like muffin batter.

Take the hot gem iron out of the oven and put a tiny dob of butter in each hollow.  You only need a small teaspoonful altogether.  It will sizzle.  Tilt the iron to spread the melted butter.

Working quickly, spoon the batter into the hot gem iron, filling each hollow two thirds full.

Put a little cube of feta cheese in each gem, and spoon the rest of the batter in on top, so the cheese is in the middle. I made these with Danish feta, which semi-melted beautifully.

Put the tray back in the oven, near the top and up fairly high. Bake for around 6 minutes till the gems are risen, golden and set.

(The Breakfast Cereal Challenge is my 2011 challenge – to the overpackaged, overpriced, mostly empty packets of junk food marketed as “cereal”. I’m going for a year’s worth of breakfast recipes, based on in-season ingredients, quick and easy enough to be a real option for weekdays, and  preferable, in nutrition, ethics, and taste.  The Muesli Bar Challenge was my 2010 Challenge.)

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I found this gem iron in an op shop.  It took me several months and quite a few goes to learn how to use it, but now it is one of my favourite kitchen tools.  It’s a heavy cast iron baking tray for tiny little cake-scone-muffin bites called gems. It’s an old fashioned implement designed for the days when any self-respecting cook was expected to be able to whip up a batch of baking at a minute’s notice. Which makes gem irons due for a resurgence in these days when time poverty beats money poverty every day.

Once you get the hang of gem irons, this can be done in less than 20 minutes – 5 minutes preparation and 10 to 12 minutes cooking time – making it feasible to be a domestic goddess (or god) and bake on weekday mornings.

The Recipe:

Turn the oven on to medium high and put the gem iron on the top shelf. It needs to be sizzling hot before you put the batter in.

Use an egg beater to beat together

  • 1 egg
  • 3 dessertspoons of plain low fat yoghurt
  • 1 dessertspoon of honey
  • pinch cinnamon

Stir in

  • half a cup (4 good dessertspoons) of dried fruit, seeds and nuts.  I used pepitas, sunflower seeds, chopped macadamias and sultanas, but you could use dates, dried apple, almonds – whatever you have and is in season.
  • half a cup of rolled oats
  • 3 dessertspoons of wholemeal self-raising flour

You will end up with a thick batter. Like muffin batter, it is best not over-mixed.

Take the hot gem iron out of the oven and put a tiny dob of butter in each hollow.  You only need a small teaspoonful altogether.  It will sizzle.  Tilt the iron to spread the melted butter.

Working quickly, spoon the batter into the hot gem iron and put it back in the oven, near the top and up fairly high. Bake for around 10 minutes till the gems are almost cooked.

The Syrup

Meanwhile, in a small pot, melt a good dessertspoon of butter and a good dessertspoon of honey together. Working quickly, spoon a little syrup over each gem and put them back in the oven for another few minutes.

They’re best hot, straight from the oven, but if you make a double batch, you may even have leftovers for lunch boxes, making this double as a Muesli Bar Challenge recipe as will.

(The Breakfast Cereal Challenge is my 2011 challenge – to the overpackaged, overpriced, mostly empty packets of junk food marketed as “cereal”. I’m going for a year’s worth of breakfast recipes, based on in-season ingredients, quick and easy enough to be a real option for weekdays, and  preferable, in nutrition, ethics, andtaste.  The Muesli Bar Challenge was my 2010 Challenge.)

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Carambolas (Star Fruit) don’t appear in fruit shops much, and I wonder why?  They’re a really nice fruit, sweet and juicy and full of vitamin C and potassium. If you live in an area where they will grow, they fruit prolifically in mid-winter and you are likely to have a glut of them.

If you don’t live in a carambola growing region, you might like to adapt this recipe.  It works with any sweet, juicy fruit in season the same time as macas – which means late autumn to early spring. With the sweetness of the carambola and the oil in the nuts, these need very little sugar or butter so they’re the kind of treat you can comfortably pack in a school lunch box or have in a mid-afternoon break from too-inactive work!

The Recipe:

Macadamia Meal

First crack your macadamias then use a food processor to blend them into a fairly fine meal. You need 60 grams, or half a cup of macadamia meal for the pastry and another 90 grams or three quarters of a cup for the filling.  Fresh nuts in shell are a different thing to the stale old nuts you find in packets in midsummer, so it is worth making your own.  This tool makes macadamia nuts a realistic everyday food.

Macadamia Shortcrust Pastry

This pastry is so easy, so delicious, and so healthy that you can eat pastry every day and not feel guilty!

In a food processor, blend together:

  • ½ cup wholemeal plain flour
  • ½ cup (60 gm) cup maca meal
  • 1 egg yolk (keep the white for the filling)
  • 1 dessertspoon butter

Add just enough water – a couple of dessertspoons full – to make a soft dough.

If your kitchen is warm, you may need to put the dough in the fridge for a few minutes (while you make the filling) so it will roll out easily.

Flour your bench top and roll the dough out. Cut out 8 saucer sized rounds and use them to line 8 holes in a muffin tin or 8  little tart tins.

Bake for around 15 minutes in a moderate oven until the pastry is firm but not yet browning.  (I don’t bother with beans or rice or anything to blind bake – it stays pretty flat without it).

The Macadamia Carambola Frangipane

You don’t need to wash the food processor.

Slice up 4 carambolas and reserve 8 nice big slices from the middle of the fruits for decorating.

Blend together into a paste:

  • 90 grams carambolas (about 4 fruit after the middle slices have been reserved for decorating as above)
  • ¾ cup (90 grams) maca meal
  • 1 dessertspoon wholemeal plain flour
  • 1 dessertspoon butter
  • 1½ dessertspoons honey
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom powder

Beat an egg white until peaks form, then gently fold in the macadamia-carambola paste.

Assembling and Baking

Spoon the filling into the shells.  The filling will puff up but it will rise up rather than out so you can fill quite full.  Decorate each tart with a slice of carambola.

Bake for around half an hour in a moderate oven until puffed up and golden.

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Last week of the school term, and it’s been hard finding space for Muesli Bar Challenge recipes in amongst everything else.  But this week is the non-planting week by the lunar calendar, and though I don’t follow it very religiously, it is also a bit too wet for planting (ironically – mostly I complain about it being too hot and dry for planting, but I avoid stepping too much on very wet soil to avoid compacting it).

I have been waiting for apple season to post this recipe.  It is, like all the Muesli Bar Challenge recipes, fast and easy enough to knock up on a weeknight, and low fat,  low sugar, low GI enough to belong in everyday school or work lunch boxes.  Apples are right in season now, and there’s good evidence that the polyphenols in apples (especially in the skin, and missing in the juice) are protective against a big range of diseases, including a heap of different cancers. This recipe also features oats, which are a superfood –  a low calorie,  low GI carbohydrate, with good amounts of B vitamins and several minerals, and a kind of fibre that is really effective at stopping cholesterol being deposited in your arteries.

The Recipe:

Makes 8 slices (You need a shallow baking dish of 8 slice capacity, like a pie dish but preferably square).

Pare or thinly slice 3 green apples.  The wide blade on my grater is a good tool for this, but you could use a mandoline or just a knife.

Put them in a pot with:

  • 1 teaspoon butter
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 1 dessertspoon sultanas
  • 1 dessertspoon lemon juice
  • Good pinch of  cinnamon
  • Little pinch of cloves

As soon as the apples start cooking they will release juice, so you want just enough water to start them off.  A wet saucepan should be enough.  Cook over a fairly low heat, stirring frequently, for 5 or 10 minutes till they are soft and starting to caramelise.

While they are cooking, in a food processor, blend together:

  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1 cup wholemeal self raising flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 40 grams butter
  • 2 dessertspoons honey
  • 4 dessertspoons low fat plain yoghurt

You should end up with a soft biscuit dough.

Take half the dough and press it into the base of a greased baking dish.  It should be about 1.25 cm (half an inch) thick.  Spread the apple mixutre on top of the base.

Put a little flour on your bench and roll the other half of the dough out with a rolling pin to fit on top.  Press it down so that it is touching the apple mix.  Prick decoratively with a fork all over.  You can also sprinkle a teaspoon of raw sugar decoratively on top if you like.

Bake in a moderate oven for 30 minutes until golden.  (I forgot these and cooked them just a bit too long – they are a little darker than I would like.)

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I promised there would be more Muesli Bar Challenge recipes this year but there’s been too much else to write about.  But a golden zucchini that got away inspired me.  What do you do with a kilo of zucchini? This recipe is in my handwritten book as Wwoofer’s Zuke Bread because the original came to me from a wwoofer years ago.  It’s evolved a bit since then, and I’ve turned it into a muffin to make it more suitable for lunch boxes.

For those new to the site, the 2010 Muesli Bar Challenge was a whole school year’s worth of lunch box baking based on fresh food in season.  The recipes had to be healthy, robust enough to survive in a school bag till lunch time, easy enough for busy parents to bother making, and reviewed by kids as actually preferable to the junk food marketed as “muesli bars”.

Zucchini are right in season and they make a muffin that stays moist.  They have decent amounts of folate, potassium, vitamin A, and phytonutrients, but the main benefit is that they are a good source of fibre.  This recipe also features fresh ginger, which is a superfood – a powerful antioxidant with a whole big list of vitamins and minerals.  I added macadamias too, just because they are just coming into season and gorgeous at the moment but you can leave them out.

The Recipe

(Makes 9 muffins)

Mix together:

  • 1 cup grated zucchini PLUS  ½ cup diced zucchini
  • ¼ cup sultanas
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon crushed fresh ginger (use a garlic crusher)
  • 3 dessertspoons of honey
  • 3 dessertspoons macadamia or other mild flavoured oil
  • 1 egg
  • ½ teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup wholemeal self raising flour
  • (Optional) ¼ cup chopped macadamia nuts

Spoon into the cups of a muffin tray, filling quite full.  Bake in a medium-hot oven for around 20 minutes until they start to brown, they bounce back when pressed and a skewer comes out clean.

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A seedy biscuit

This is the last of my Muesli Bar Challenge series for the year. The draft of this post has been in my drafts folder since the very first week.  It’s one of my old favourites – so easy, so healthy, so school lunch box acceptable.  As a gardener, I’m really conscious that seeds are concentrated sources of nutrients – complex carbohydrates  that fuel a plant’s early growth, protein to allow it to create new cells, phytonutrients to protect it.  You can make these with or without nuts as well, depending on your school’s nut policy.

A whole four terms of Challenge recipes, and not one has come home uneaten.  Take that, LCMs!

The Recipe:

Into the food processor, put:

  • two eggs,
  • two dessertspoons (60 grams) butter,
  • two dessertspoons of brown sugar.
  • two heaped dessertspoons of wholemeal self-raising flour.

Blend this mix well, then add a cup full of nuts and/or seeds. I used pepitas, sunflower seeds, sesame seeds cashews,  macadamias and almonds, but you can use any combination.  You can blend this very briefly, just enough to break up the bigger nuts but not enough to blend, or you can just stir them in whole.  Large nuts might need rough chopping but whole seeds give a good texture. In the photo I left them whole, but in this latest batch that the kids are reviewing I blended briefly.

Add half a cup of sultanas. Organic sultanas are worth the expense if you can find them. You can taste the difference, and they haven’t been coated in cottonseed oil. If your school has a no-nuts policy, stick to just seeds.

Butter a baking tray and put spoonfuls on it. The biscuits will spread as they cook so give them room. Bake in a moderately hot oven for 10 to 15 minutes till nicely browned. Cool on the tray (they crispen as they cool).

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The local Farmers’ Market this week had apricots, from within 100 miles.  Seduced by memories of apricots I had in Tasmania years ago I bought a kilo.  Sadly it just retaught me a lesson I know so well:  eating local is not just an ethical response to the need to reduce transport of everything, by lots, but also a gastronomic choice that brings its own rewards.

Our northern apricots don’t compare with the golden, aromatic, dripping with juice things I remember from Tasmania.  Tart and thin flavoured, these ones had to be cooked, and even then, I think the recipe works better for me with nectarines  – they’re more adapted to a warmer climate.  Try it with apricots if you live south enough, or otherwise try nectarines or plums instead.

This is the second last  Muesli Bar Challenge recipe before the end of term.

The Recipe:

The Semolina Cream

In a small saucepan, bring to the boil:

  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • 4 dessertspoons brown sugar
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 6 dessertspoons (30 grams) of semolina

Cook this mix, stirring constantly, for 3 or 4 minutes until it is thick and creamy.

Take it off the heat and allow to cool a little while you make the pastry.

The Pastry:

In the food processor, put

  • 1¼ cups of wholemeal plain flour,
  • 3 dessertspoons of butter

Blend for a minute until it resembles breadcrumbs.  (Or you can just mix the flour and sugar and rub the butter in with your finger tips). Add just enough cold water to make a soft dough.  Add it  carefully, spoonful at a time.

Sprinkle flour on your benchtop and roll it out quite thin. Use a small saucer to cut 10 cm circles and put each in a cup of a greased 12 cup muffin tray.

Assembling

Fish out the cinnamon stick and use an egg beater to beat 2 eggs into the semolina.

Fill each pastry case ¾ full with semolina cream.

Slice your apricots or nectarines into wedges and set the wedges into the semolina cream, half in and half out.

Bake the tarts for about 45 minutes in a medium-slow oven.  About 10 minutes before they are fully cooked, spoon a teaspoonful of glaze on top of each tart.  The easy way to make a glaze is to mix a couple of teaspoons of jam with a little hot water.  If you don’t have jam, make a quick sugar syrup with a couple of teaspoons of sugar boiled in a little water until syrupy.  Watch them after you have glazed as they will brown and then burn quite quickly.

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Early season peaches are just coming into season here.  I don’t really grow stonefruit – we are smack bang in fruit fly territory and it’s just too much work.  I have a couple of volunteer seedling peach trees though, and although most years the birds, possums, and flying foxes get most of the fruit,  the trees bear so heavily we get some.  All of it is fruit fly stung but good for cooking, or for eating straight from the tree, ideally shared with some chooks who fight over the fruit fly stung parts as I drop them.

There is good stone fruit growing country on the Tablelands though, within my 100 mile zone but only for a short while, so time to make the most of it.

This is an adaption of an adaption of a traditional Italian recipe.  The original original is Sbrisolona, which has a crumbly texture.  Sbrisoletta is a cake-like version invented by a “Nonna” called Rose – you can find that original here.  It was still a bit too sweet and dessert-like and too crumbly for a Muesli Bar Challenge recipe though, so my niece Rosie and I did some experimenting and made it into a lunchbox Sbrisoletta.

This cake is the most gorgeous way to use lots of stonefruit.  It has very little sugar, a bit more butter than the usual but still within the rules, and it is really easy – 12 year old Rosie made this one.  It is an unlikely kind of recipe – several bits don’t seem right – but it works.

The Recipe:

Makes about 12 squares or slices.

For this recipe you need a shallow cake pan that is 21 cm diameter, or (preferably) a similar area in a square or rectangular shape, eg 18.5 cm square, or 14cm by 25 cm rectangle. Grease it with butter and line with greaseproof paper.

Turn your oven on to heat up.

Plump up a tablespoon of sultanas, by pouring just a little boiling water over them.

In the food processor, blend together

  • 4/5 of a cup of wholemeal self raising flour
  • 2/3 of a cup of semolina
  • 4 dessertspoons of brown sugar
  • 125 grams of cold butter, chopped into pieces
  • pinch salt
  • ¾ teaspoon of baking powder

Blend for a minute until it resembles breadcrumbs – like the first stage of making pastry.

Spread two thirds of this mix over the base of your greased, paper-lined cake tin. Don’t press it down – just leave it as a loose crumb.

Over the top of this, sprinkle evenly:

  • 600 grams of  ripe, juicy peaches (about 6 medium peaches) chopped into small bits
  • Your tablespoon of plumped up sultanas (drained)
  • A tablespoon of pine nuts
  • Pinch of cinnamon
  • Grated zest of a lemon

Spread the rest of the dry mix over this.

Beat together and Pour Over:

  • Half a cup of milk
  • 2 small eggs (or one egg and one egg yolk)

Pour this evenly over the top of the dry mix in the cake pan.  Allow it to soak in for a few minutes. You can sprinkle a few flaked almonds on top as decoration if you like.

Bake in a moderate oven for around 45 minutes until set.

Before You Cut It Up

Cover the warm cake and leave to cool for a few hours or overnight in the cake pan.  If you try to remove it while it is hot, it will be too crumbly.  But  overnight the moisture in it spreads out and it firms up and can be cut up into squares that are robust enough for a lunch box.

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