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basket of citrus

Sunlight in my basket.

Limes, lemons, mandarins, oranges.  So many of them that I am making salted limes for adding to summer soda water and salted lemons for that little salty sour-sweet note that lifts so many dishes out of the ordinary.  I’m making lime syrup for cordial, but not being a real sweet tooth, mostly for Asian style dipping sauce for things like rice paper rolls.   I’m making Indian style Lime Pickle for curries (and for cheese and crackers), and mostly for giving away.  I’m putting lemon and lime skins in cleaning vinegar to make lemon oil vinegar for cleaning – it’s my one-and-only cleaning product for floors and stove and shelves.  I’m making lime and ginger marmalade – I can’t believe I’ve never posted that recipe.

But mostly, we are just using them fresh and glorying in the abundance while it lasts.  This time of year tomatoes are scant.  The ones you will be getting in the supermarket will likely be artificially ripened, tasteless, coming from a long way away, and very expensive.  I still get a few cherry tomatoes hanging on in my frost free garden but mostly that cooking niche that needs a bit of sweet acidity is filled by citrus.  So whereas in summer my pasta sauces are mostly tomato based – things like pasta puttanesca –  this time of year they are lemon based – things like lemon caper parsley pasta sauce, or Lemon Feta Tortellini.  Whereas in summer I add tomatoes to beans, in winter I add lemon.  In summer, soups nearly always have tomatoes in them, in winter a squeeze of lemon juice.  Summer salads have tomatoes and feta, winter salads have leafy greens and a lemon dressing.

It’s very neat the way tomatoes and lemons tag-team it.

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I love mandarins straight from the tree, sun warm and juicy and full of Vitamin C. But there is a limit to how many you can eat like that.  And mandarins are  such a good source of “bioflavanoids” that strengthen blood vessels and protect against all kinds of cell damage that it is worth challenging the limit.  And citrus season is so abundant that there’s plenty of scope.

(The Breakfast Challenge??)

The Recipe:

You need a heat tolerant bowl that fits neatly in a saucepan with a couple of inches of boiling water, without touching the bottom. Like this:

In the bowl heat 1 cup (250 ml) of mandarin juice and pulp. (This is 5 of my smaller, early season mandarins). The pulp is really good for you so don’t strain it out.

Add 2 dessertspoons of butter and heat until the butter melts.

Meanwhile, in another bowl, use an egg beater to beat together 3 medium (50 gm) eggs, or 4 of my little bantam eggs, with 2 dessertspoons of sugar till it goes pale and fluffy.

As soon as the butter is melted, pour the egg mix all at once into the mandarin juice and straight away beat it in with the egg beater. Continue stirring with a wooden spoon, over the boiling water, for 4 or 5 minutes until the mixture starts to go thick and custardy. It will thicken up a bit more as it cools, quite a lot more if you chill it. Don’t boil it.

Take it off the heat and give it another beat with the egg beater, then let it cool. (If you want it to cool fast, put the bowl in the sink in some cold water).

From this point you can do many things with it.

If you want to be voted best cook ever by a five-year-old, give them a bowl of warm mandarin curd and a spoon. It’s not exactly a balanced breakfast but it’s high protein, low sugar and pretty healthy, and oh so good.

For weekday mornings when we all need to be out of the house by 8 am, I cool the curd and spread it thickly on toasted sourdough. A batch like this will make several breakfasts and will keep in the fridge for a few days.

For a more leasurely gourmet breakfast, while the curd is cooling, make a batch of crepes.

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Kids may not like this one (though it is surprising, sometimes, what kids like).  This is a recipe for people who like their chocolate dark, who like expresso coffee and olives and beer and marmelaide.  If you do like bitter flavours though, it is addictive and it’s my current favourite breakfast.

What led to this – a friend mentioned turmeric nut butter to me, and having fresh turmeric in the garden and a good macadamia season this year, and now the first of the season’s mandarins – I had to experiment.  I like sweet nut butters like the Macadamia and Pear Butter a couple of weeks ago, and the turmeric adds a lovely interesting spiciness to it.

Besides being an addictive taste, this is a real super-foods health breakfast.  Fresh turmeric is a really good source of anti-inflamatory anti-oxidants with some solid science behind it being a cancer preventative.  Macadamias are rich in the kind of oils that actually lower cholesterol, like the “clinically proven to lower cholesterol” margarines that are being so aggressively marketed these days (which are actually based on hydrogenated sterols from pine tree wood pulp).  And mandarins are a good source of “bioflavanoids” that, among other things, strengthen blood vessels (helping to prevent things like kidney disease and varicose veins).

(The Breakfast Cereal Challenge is my 2011 challenge – a year’s worth of breakfast recipes that are quick and easy enough to be a real option for weekdays, and that are preferable, in nutrition, ethics, and taste,  to the overpackaged, overpriced, mostly empty packets of junk food marketed as “cereal” ).

The Recipe:

This recipe makes enough for two slices of toast – one adult for breakfast.  It will store though, covered in the fridge, so if you decide you like it, you can make it in batches for a few days.  I actually think it is at its best on day two, though it is probably at its healthiest when fresh made.

First crack your macadamias.  This tool makes buying or harvesting macadamias in season in their shells a realistic option. (The recipe might also work with almonds, which are also in season now – I’d love to hear if someone tries it).

In a small pan, dry roast together 10 chopped macadamia nuts with a knob of fresh turmeric, peeled and chopped, about the equivalent to 5 macadamias – ie about half as much. Roast for just a couple of minutes, shaking, till the nuts start to colour.

Add the juice from one large-ish mandarin and a couple of dessertspoons of olive or macadamia oil and a good pinch of salt.

Blend this mixture in a food processor or with a stick blender till it is smooth and pale coloured, adding more juice or water if necessary to get it to the right texture.

Meanwhile  make some toast, and just warm some mandarin segments in the same pan.

Slather the turmeric and mandarin nut butter on toast, top with the warmed mandarin segments, and eat.

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For practically the first time in my adult life, I have no chooks at present.  This is the culprit.

I am working on a new roost design.  If it works, the chooks will be able to put themselves to bed at night.  I will be able to let them free range in the daytime and she (or he) won’t be able to get them at night.

I am missing them for many reasons, but right now because it is egg season.  Luckily though, I have friends who have free-range, ethically raised chooks and, at this time of year an abundance of eggs.

My Muesli Bar Challenge series is a series of recipes for healthy lunch box baking based on fresh in-season produce.  This recipe melds the last of the citrus season with the start of the egg season.  It is a flourless cake with no butter but no less than six eggs.

Eggs are a great source of protein, but they go extra well in school lunches because they are rich in choline, which is needed for nerves and brain to function properly. Using them in baking makes them safer in the heat of a lunch box.

You need a cup of macadamia meal for this recipe.  You can substitute almond meal – in fact I would be fairly sure that somewhere back in time I had an original version of this recipe  based on almond meal.  But for me, macadamias have no food miles at all. And they’re super healthy, with monounsaturated heart healthy oils  and a huge range of vitamins and minerals.  And fresh, in-the-shell macas in season are a taste sensation.  This little tool makes cracking macas easy, and the kernels blend to a meal easily in a food processor.

Once you have your maca meal, the recipe is dead easy. Let’s see what the reviewers think.

The Recipe:

Turn your oven on to heat up to medium.

Grease a 20 cm cake tin and line the base with a circle of greaseproof paper.

Blend together until smooth:

  • 1 cup of macadamia meal
  • 1½ teaspoons of baking powder
  • 1 cup of orange, tangelo, mandarin, or lime segments with seeds removed.
  • ¾ cup of brown sugar
  • 6 whole eggs

Stir in 3 good dessertspoons of poppy seeds.

The mixture will not be at all like a cake mix.  It will be quite liquid.

Pour it into your prepared cake tin and bake for around 40 minutes till the cake is set and a skewer comes out clean.

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I am on a bit of a roll with the mandarin, ricotta and honey flavours.  Plus mandarins are getting towards the end of their season so I’m eager to make the most of them.  This one is, like last week’s cake, super easy.  The flavours are similar -this one is a bit stronger flavoured – but the texture is quite different, more like a cheesecake.

The Muesli Bar Challenge is a weekly series of  recipes for school lunch box baking – everyday baking rather than special occasion baking. It is recipes that are healthy, easy, cheap and based on fresh produce that is now in season. I have a group of school age reviewers, whose job it is to judge whether school kids really do prefer healthy alternatives the the overpriced, overpackaged junk food marketed as “muesli bars”.

The Recipe:

Turn your oven on to heat up.

Grease and line with greaseproof paper a shallow 20cm square cake pan.

Separate three eggs.

Grate the zest off 6 mandarins, then juice them.  You may need the juice from another mandarin as well, depending on how large and juicy your mandarins are.

Blend together:

  • the 3 egg yolks
  • 200 ml of mandarin juice,
  • three teaspoons of mandarin zest,
  • 5 good dessertspoons of honey,
  • 500 grams of ricotta,
  • one cup (150 grams) of wholemeal self-raising flour,
  • a pinch of salt

Beat the 3 egg whites until soft peaks form, then fold the blended mix into them.

Pour the mix into your greased and lined cake pan, and bake in the middle of a medium oven for about an hour until the slice cracks on top and feels set.  It will deflate and firm up more as it cools, so don’t be concerned if it feels a little soft, but you don’t want it still runny.

Meanwhile, make a syrup glaze.

In a small saucepan, simmer 100 ml of mandarin juice, 50 ml of water, and 3 dessertspoons of sugar.  You can add a teaspoon of zest as well if you like a strong, marmelaide-y flavour.  Simmer for 5 minutes or so until it goes thick and syruppy.

Spoon the hot syrup over the top of the hot slice as it comes out of the oven.  Allow it to cool, set and deflate, then turn it out and cut into squares.

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Wow.  I’m over half way through the school year, and I haven’t lost a Muesli Bar Challenge yet.  Even I’m surprised.  I expected at some stage to push the low-fat, low-sugar bar just a bit too low!  Maybe this is the time – it has no sugar in the cake, just a little in the glaze, and is sweetened with the mandarin juice and some honey.  And it has no butter.

But kids have good taste.  They are justifiably wary of bitter flavours – bitterness is often a sign of alkaloids and the human animal has evolved taste buds to alert them to it.  But the confectionery marketed as “muesli bars” tastes only of its main ingredient – high fructose corn syrup – a cheap substitute for sugar that extends shelf life – a huge health risk and boring.

The Muesli Bar Challenge is a weekly series of  baking recipes that are healthy, easy, and cheap enough to be everyday rather than special occasion foods. They have to be based on local, in-season ingredients, and they have to be robust enough to survive the rough and tumble of a one-way trip in a school lunch box, and never need to survive a two-way trip.

The Recipe

This one is super easy – 5 minutes to make and 40 minutes to bake.

Grease a shallow 20cm square cake pan, (or round pan of about the same size).  Turn your oven on to heat up to medium.

Into the food processor, put

  • 300 grams of low fat ricotta
  • 4 good dessertspoons of honey
  • 3 eggs
  • 100 ml of mandarin juice and 4 teaspoons of grated zest (two medium mandarins).

Blend this mix till smooth, then pour it in on top of 2 cups (300 grams) of wholemeal self raising flour. Mix just to combine  – like a muffin batter, the idea is to avoid developing the gluten in the flour.

Pour the batter into your cake pan and bake near the top of a medium oven for around 40 minutes until a skewer comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, juice another two mandarins and dissolve two dessertspoons of raw sugar in the juice.  Simmer in a small saucepan for a few minutes until it goes syrupy. (I think next time I might make this 3 mandarins and 3 dessertspoons of sugar).

Poke holes with a skewer all over the top of the hot cake, and spoon the hot syrup over it.  Allow to cool then turn out of the pan.

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There are two recipes for one in the Muesli Bar Challenge this week.  The jumping off point was Stephanie Alexander’s adaption of Claudia Roden’s adaption from a Middle Eastern classic that uses whole boiled oranges.  Oranges and almonds are right in season, and I liked the idea of using whole oranges, because most of the “bioflavanoids” that make citrus fruit so healthy are in the pulp, not the juice. But the original version is marmalade-y bitter in a way that adults find gorgeous but kids find a bit too strong.

So there are two versions:  one that makes a great adult lunch box treat, or, with a dollop of cream, a sensational dinner party desert.  The other one that satisfies the Muesli Bar Challenge rules:  healthy, ethical, based on in-season ingredients, fast and easy to make, and rated by school age reviewers as preferable to the overpackaged junk food marketed as suitable for school lunches.

The Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of orange juice and pulp (or substitute mandarin juice and pulp)

For the adult, marmalade-y version, boil one large or two small oranges in a pot of water for an hour.  Roughly chop, remove the seeds, and use  a good stick blender or food processor to blend the whole orange, skin and all, to give 1 cup of orange pulp.

For the sweeter kids’ version, juice 2 or 3 oranges, remove the seeds, but add the pulp to the juice to give 1 cup of orange pulp.

  • 2 eggs
  • 2 good desertspoons of brown sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla essence
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ½ teaspoon cardamom powder

Using a good stick blender or food processor, blend all this list together with the orange pulp till it is smooth and creamy.

  • 1 cup almond meal
  • ¾ cup wholemeal plain flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder

Fold this list in.

Grease and line a shallow, square or rectangular cake pan with greaseproof paper.

  • flaked almonds

Sprinkle all over the bottom of the pan, and spoon the cake mix in on top.

Bake in a moderate oven  till the cake springs back and a skewer comes out clean.  It takes about 30 minutes in a rectangular pan, a bit longer if there is more “middle” – that is, if your pan is square or deep.

The Syrup

  • half a cup of orange juice
  • 2 good desertspoons of raw sugar

Simmer for a few minutes until it goes  syrupy. While the cake is still warm, turn it out of the tin and strip off the greaseproof paper.  With the flaked almond side on top,  poke holes all over it with a skewer.  Pour the warm syrup over the warm cake and allow to soak in.

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