At the beginning of the year, I did a great “Make Time to Write” course through the Australian Writer’s Centre. I very quickly realised that I was making too many excuses about why I wasn’t writing. I also quickly realised that if I set the clock for 30 – or even 15 minutes – I could write a few hundred words. But it’s generally stream of consciousness stuff and it’s the sort of writing I do well at the end of the day when thoughts have been spinning around my head while I’ve been working or driving or hanging out with my family during the day. The challenge is then sitting down the next day to polish those words, find the photos and links and publish a blog post. Of late, that’s where I have fallen down.
But the other reason I haven’t been writing much is that I’m spending alot of my limited spare time reading and watching TV. Having a (long) list of books I’d like to read and movies and TV I’d like to watch is nothing new. I’ve often had lists scribbled on paper, notes or photos in my phone and in the last year, have had a list on the Goodreads app – which is really handy when browsing the shelves of a library or book shop.
When I started listening to Annabel Crabb and Leigh Sales Chats 10 Looks 3 podcast, my book list started to grow exponentially, as did my list of TV shows, movies, podcasts and must-cook recipes but the podcast was on every couple of weeks at best as so I could almost keep up.
Then came the Facebook group – and things are officially out of control. In a few weeks, the group has grown to nearly 13,000 members and probably fills 85 per cent of my Facebook feed. Not that I am complaining, because it is one of the most enjoyable Facebook groups I’ve been a part of. Annabel, Leigh and the amazing Brenda have made sure that the focus is firmly on books, TV shows, movies and cooking. When it comes to cooking, I’d say the posts a a fair split between “Chatter’s crack” – a moreish recipe from Smitten Kitchen made from salada biscuits, caramel and chocolate topped with nuts (which I eventually made – and demolished), Ottolenghi dishes and everything else. There’s no nastiness and very little whinging and complaining. It is one of the most positive and uplifting online spaces I have been a part of.
But then the books! My Goodreads list is growing faster than ever, there is a tower of books on my beside table that threatens to squish me in the night and I’ve found myself jumping between hardcover books (two at a time), an audio book and a couple of books on my iPad – and still ordering books and borrowing from the library. And TV shows. In the last few weeks, we have binge watched three seasons of The Americans (and would have moved on to the next two seasons if they were available), series 2 of Cleverman, Utopia (so I can have flashbacks to my public service life), the Handmaid’s Tale (incredible and confronting but I can’t wait for Season Two) and I’ve started on Season One of Top of the Lake. And it goes without saying that I’m watching the 7.30 Report and The House!
I feel like I am on some sort of reading and watching bootcamp, anxiously trying to keep up and plough through the required reading and viewing. Being part of this club sharing photos of your TBR (to be read) pile, and obsessing over what to read, watch and cook next. I’m missing the days of having sick leave and no children (although I probably shouldn’t have said that in earshot of my six year old) but I am loving the excuse to read more. I feel like I’m part of a big online book club.
Spending more of my time reading has probably cut into to my writing time, but as I learned earlier in the year, it is just about carving out small parts of my day. At the same time, I know that part of becoming a better writing is reading more. And the more I read, the more books I hear about and see, the more I believe that I have got a story to share that is unique and will find an audience.
As always, I get to the end of a post, and I’m never quite sure how to wrap things up, so I am just going to leave this Oliver Sachs quote from the beautiful Insomniac City by Bill Hayes (one of my favourite books this year) – which has inspired me to keep writing.
“The most we can do is to write – intelligently, creatively, critically, evocatively – about what it is like living in the world at this time”. Oliver Sachs, April 2015
I am the first to admit I suffer from shiny object syndrome. I get bored fairly easily and so while Michelle Bridge’s 12 week body transformation had worked for a number of years, it had lost it’s appeal (and let’s not even get into her recent ads about people growing their own stuff being freaks – what the?). I was really struggling to get my eating (and drinking) in the right place and to find the right balance with exercise. I’d beat myself for not exercising 6 times a week – by not doing anything. Exercise had also become more social for me – walking a couple of times a week with different friends – which was far more interesting than just the gym. But then I’d feel like I was’;t doing enough and my weight wasn’t shifting.
I’d looked into the Whole30 earlier in the year but to be honest it all seemed too hard. No grains, sugar, dairy or alcohol for 30 days. It didn’t really sit right with the food lover in me and I have always subscribed to everything in moderation. It wasn’t until I heard one of the founders of the Whole30, Melissa Hartwig on my favourite Being Boss podcast (and learning that the podcast hosts Emily and Kathleen had both done Whole 30s) that I reconsidered giving it a go. I quizzed one friend that had done it, starting reading up and read the first book Melissa and Dallas Hartwig wrote called It Starts with Food. It was interesting to think about how our diet has changed and that perhaps especially as we get older, there might be some things that our bodies find harder to deal with. I’m no scientist, but a lot of their ideas made sense.
On the flip side, I really wasn’t keen on another “fad” diet or eating style. However, what I did like about the Whole 30 was that it is very much about giving up these things for 30 days and then reintroducing them and working out what works for you. I also liked that the focus was on 3 solid healthy meals a day, cutting the snacks and most importantly not replacing one less than healthy item with something made with supposedly more healthy items. If I’m going to eat cake, I want cake. If not, I’m happy to go without it.
For me, giving up alcohol was a big deal. Simon works in a tasting room, many of our friends work in wine, I live in a region that is sustained on wine production but I combined my Whole30 with the Ocsober fundraising challenge so it was a little easier. Looking back, I am surprised I took friends wine tasting, had friends come for dinner and celebrated our anniversary – without a drop!
In the weeks leading up to doing my Whole30, I started to eat as compliant with the Whole30 as I could – which made starting much easier. Day 1 was after we’d been out with friends for a 16 course, wine fuelled degustation at one of the Barossa’s best restaurants. I’d tasted the most amazing food, was still full and so it made it easier to start. I’d also prepped a few things like making my own whole egg mayo (so easy with a stick blender I will keep doing it – recipe here), as well as some other sauces. I’d also shopped and planned out a menu.
I’d signed up to a daily email from the Whole 30 which had lots of great tips and advice and it was motivating to click the – yep, I did it link each day. They have a pretty strong – if you slip up, go back to the beginning approach, so I was determined to stick with it.
They also have a bit of a “tough love” approach – this isn’t hard – fighting illness is hard etc etc. And to be honest, I had to agree. I focused on what I was eating (rather than what I was missing) and I gave myself challenges to come up with new tasty meals. Yes, I missed a glass of wine and there were times where I thought it would be easier to make a sandwich or a bowl of cereal but overall it wasn’t too hard. There is a Whole30 timeline on the website and I have to say it was pretty spot-on.
In the first week, I realised my bacon and cold meat weren’t really complaint (they are pretty strict on sulphites, sugar, additives etc) so I ended up eating a lot of chicken, mince and smoked salmon. Surprisingly, I didn’t get sick of eggs. I bought a new non-stick pan before I started and it was definitely my new best friend. While I like to think I’m fairly health conscious, and in recent years had done away with most processed, low-fat food, I was still amazed to realise the things that did contain additives that we could just as easily make at home. I made taco seasoning that the boys declared was the “best ever”. I started cooking with fat (olive oil, ghee or clarified butter) and I wasn’t hungry because I was eating a decent meal.
There is a lot on the various Whole30 Facebook pages and forums about how much time food prep takes on the Whole30. Given we were already pretty well eating food from scratch, it didn’t make much difference – and I have to say, it did get me thinking about the modern diet and sadly how much is pre-packaged. I decided during the whole30 if there ever came a time (and I’m not talking a few busy days here and there), that I didn’t have time to prepare a meal and sit down and eat it, something was definitely wrong with our lifestyle.
For me, one of the biggest challenges was having food prepped if I was going out, and it’s made me think more about having things like poached chicken, tuna, salmon or beef rissoles in the freezer if I do need something on the run. Improbably ate more nuts, date based bars and fruit for this reason.
Day 30 was last Sunday and it was also the day I helped run the major fundraiser for my son’s Kindy. I decided I would finish the day with some bubbles because for me, my Whole30 experience was more than just one day. In the last week I’ve had a couple of ice creams, some naan bread, put milk in my tea and had pasta. Given that I didn’t have any major health concerns before the Whole30, introducing these hasn’t been a big deal. That said, I proved I was happy to go without a lot of these things, so I see them being special occasion food. If I’m going to eat bread, it will be the once a week freshly made artisan loaf from the Farmer’s Market. Same for cheese – it has to be good. I’ll probably have a wine most days but I’ll go back to a chocolate as a special occasion rather than picking one up every time I shop. I’ve come to love my black coffee but I missed my morning tea with milk, so that will come back in some days.
Over the 30 days, I lost about 3 kilos and about 2 per cent body fat. But the big change was my shape. Most people I saw commented and most thought I’d lost more than I did. I lost about 6cm off my bust, 3 cm each of my waist and hips and a couple of centimetres off my arms and thighs.
The Whole 30 “rule” is that you don’t weigh yourself. I broke that rule and was happy to see how my weight (and body fat) fluctuated over the course of the month. But I can see why you perhaps shouldn’t be weighing yourself – especially as for some people, it might take a little longer for the benefits to come.
I definitely enjoyed more energy but I still probably wasn’t sleeping as much as they recommend, which was worse during the period where I found myself swapping the habit of an afternoon snack when the boys came home, for a coffee. And because I had so much energy, I found myself a little wound up at nights. So this month, while I’m aiming to continue to eat Whole30 most of the time, I am going to aim for more sleep and more exercise. I’ve got a new gym program to balance out my walking days and I’m trying to just focus on enjoying it instead of getting annoyed if I don’t hit 6 sessions.
Would I recommend Whole30? Definitely – if for no other reason that giving your body a change of scenery and forcing you to be more mindful about what you eat and drink.
Would i do it again? I’m not sure. As I’ve said, I didn’t really miss anything on a daily basis so I’m happy to continue to eat a diet based on lots of vegetables, fish, meat and eggs and some fruit and nuts plus lots of healthy fats. But there may well come a time, particularly after holidays or travel where sticking with the Whole30 – for a week or even the full 30 days is the right thing to do.
It’s a couple of weeks since part one of my newcomer’s guide to the Barossa (me being the newcomer). Work, school holidays and the realisation I’d deleted part two has delayed this post. But school is back and thanks to the computer back-up, I have been able to resurrect the post and share some of my other favourite things to do.
One upside is that I have been able to sample a few more places, so I have a few more tips to add.
Fresh Produce and Food
It’s probably no surprise that the wine culture and German heritage in the Barossa means that food is an important part of the Barossa lifestyle. If you visit on a Saturday morning, be sure to head to the Barossa Valley Fanmer’s Market to pick up great produce, coffee, treats and even breakfast. I also love that our local supermarket support so many local producers by stocking their products, which means that even if you can’t get to the Farmer’s Market, you can still try products like Jersey Fresh milk, Barossa Roasters coffee, Careme Pastry,Steiny’s mettwurst, Wiech’s noodles, Barossa Valley Ice Cream, and many more. I love the fact our local supermarkets get behind local products and make sure they are available if you can’t make it to the Famer’s Market.
In an era where many cities have lost their butchers, we’re lucky to have butcher’s in most towns in the Barossa including Thornby’s in Tanunda, Schultz in Angaston (home to the famous Schultz bacon) and Linke’s in Nuriootpa.
Right next to Thornby’s in Tanunda, is the Apex bakery which has been baking bread since 1924.
Maggie Beer’s Farmshop is definitely worth a visit – you can enjoy a light lunch overlooking the dam, an ice cream or stock up on amazing condiments, jams, sauces and other cooking items. I am slightly obsessed by the Salted Brandy Caramel and Dark Chocolate Vincotto. Great spot for kids with nature walks, birds (including a couple of beautiful peacocks), turtles, ducks and sheep.
The options for coffee are expanding weekly it seems and it is hard to believe that a decade ago there was hardly a coffee shop in town. Being in Tanunda, I tend to get my daily fix at Keils, Nosh or the recently opened Mac Shac (which all serve a good range of sandwiches and meals). I have yet to try out the new Beans and Cream which is using my favourite Barossa Coffee Roasters– as does Harvest Kitchen and the kiosk at Seppeltsfield. Another popular newcomer on the Main Street of Tanunda is Darling’s Food with Passion cafe right next to Ironstone Cottage (which along with Elemental, Seasons and Alabaster are some of my favourite places to shop, especially for gifts).
Once you have enjoyed all the wineries and cooked up a storm with local produce, there are also some great restaurants to try. Here’s the list I share
Fino at Seppeltsfield – award winning and just as good as the original Fino in Willunga (McLaren Vale) and set in the recently renovated Seppeltsfield building
Appellation at the Louise – amazing food and also does a “locals night” (although you don’t have to be local) on a Tuesday night) which is a 3 course menu $59 – bookings essential. We went for our anniversary last year and it was great not having to order and just enjoying the dishes the chef had designed to showcase great local, seasonal produce
Ferment Asia in Tanunda is rated really highly with Chef and Owner Tuoi Do preparing Vietnamese style dishes using local South Australian produce. It also has a great wine list and has been recently extended
Harvest Kitchen at Artisans of Barossa – run by Tracey Collins and Pete Little, I have eaten here several times since they opened in February and can’t say a bad word – except for the fact I am slightly addicted to the salted caramel popcorn sundae! I also recently tried the Feed Me Like a Barossan lunch, which for $49 provides a fantastic selection of all the small plates, mains and desserts on offer. If you have the time, settle in and enjoy. Open 7 days for lunch, they are also open on a Friday night for dinner – but make sure you book.
Casa Carboni – coffee is fantastic and Fiona and Matteo offer great meals and cooking classes. On Friday evenings they offer wines by the glass with a menu of seasonal, local small plates.
Greenock Creek Tavern – great old pub with beautiful courtyards and grassed areas. We were spoilt with a huge sample platter of homemade icecreams from the chef the day we went. The lemon meringue pie ice cream had actual pieces of pie in it and was delicious.
Hentley Farm – this is definitely something to put on your Barossa bucket list! We were very lucky to be taken there by friends recently and enjoyed the Discovery menu with paired wines. The service was impeccable and the food was amazing – incredible flavours and very innovative without being over the top. It’s decsrived as “about” 7 courses and while there were 7 mains, there were also 5 small “snacks” to start, a dessert and 3 different petit fours. Save your pocket money and book in advance!
There are also pubs in most of the towns serving up good local pub food.
For families (especially with younger kids), the options for dinner are more limited, but given the number of new restaurants that have opened since we arrived, I don’t think it will be long before there are more options. I often suggest to friends travelling with kids that they make the most of lunches out, and then stock up at the market, butchers and supermarket (and cellar doors) for dinner – and of course, get a babysitter and book one fancy child-free dinner out.
One gap that I hope is filled in coming years is a really good, upscale Chinese restaurant that showcases Australian produce and most importantly wine from the Barossa with dishes cooked from a variety of Chinese regional cuisines. I think this would be a valuable addition from both a tourism and wine point of view.
And it could hardly be a post about Barossa food without mentioning all the brilliant home made and home grown produce. We have be spoiled by friend’s bringing us cherries, lemons, eggs, almonds, apricots, preserves and chutneys. I’m also learning that the country roads are filled with wild fruits and nuts, and I’m looking forward to my first foraging trip. I’m also going to give jam making another go, although I think the winners from this year’s Tanunda Show are safe for a little while yet!
There are loads of options for tours so that you don’t need to worry about driving yourself. There is not much in the way of public transport and if you think you need a taxi, especially around school start and finish times, book in advance.
Tourism Barossa has some great resources and you should also visit the Visitors Centre in Tanunda when you arrive for more tips and local knowledge.
I’m sure there are many more places I could include, but these are just a few of the places we’ve enjoyed since we have been here or been told we should try. If there is anything I’ve missed, please let me know.
Last weekend we attended our first Tanunda Show at the local oval, which is about 5 minutes drive from our place. The show has been going since 1910, and I had heard a lot of discussion from many people about the competitions especially cakes and preserves. Given the near obsession with food in the place, I was quite excited to see what was on offer.
The display in the show hall was fantastic. Kids Lego creations, cakes, pickles, pickled onions, preserve, fruit and vegetables, grapes, craft and giant sunflowers – and at the front the main display of the region’s produce and wine, which was auctioned off later in the day.
I had considered entering some cakes, but didn’t get organised and I suspect I was still scarred from my failed entry to the Wollongong Show 30 years ago. It was a kids packet cake section and my cake was a flop. I have no idea how I failed on a packet cake, but I entered it and copped some good-natured ribbing from teachers and students alike. Not one to accept failure, I had another try and brought a perfect cake in for the teachers the following week.
Anyway, I was excited to see a few friends and a a couple of the boys’ friends had won prizes and while the prize money isn’t huge, for a 50 cent entry, I’ll definitely be having a go next year, if only to be part of the community and keep this Australian tradition alive.
The boys were not as excited by the displays and were keen to enjoy a hot dog and some rides with their friends, although they did come home in the afternoon and start building Lego creations “for the show next year”.
For the kids, the highlight was definitely side-show alley. I’m sure I wasn’t the only parent whose wallet felt somewhat lighter at after only a couple of rides, but the boys had a great time and I at least talked them out of any activity that would have resulted in another piece of plastic or fluffy toy making its way home.
It was a great way to spend a few hours on a beautiful March day, and I am definitely looking forward to being a part of it next year.
As I sort and pack away the Christmas decorations for another year, it’s a good time to reflect on our first Barossa Christmas, which also marked the first Christmas in many years that we weren’t overseas, packing to go overseas, having a baby or working. This meant I had loads of time to really enjoy the lead up rather than getting super stressed. That said, I still scaled back my somewhat ambitious plans. But Christmas was everything it was meant to be – a lovely time to enjoy the company of family and friends.
Time with family and friends was definitely the highlight of our Christmas. We got to catch up with a good friend we hadn’t seen in over 3 years who lives in Hong Kong. He’s one of my oldest friends and probably the first person I ever met from the Barossa. He might have moved away 20 years ago, but still visits alot so we’re looking forward to catching up more often.
We also had a fabulous visit from my best friend and bridesmaid who now lives in the UK with her husband and 2 children. It was fabulous to see the kids all playing together like they had never been apart. Not surprising, a trip to the UK is now high on the boys’ wish lists – also influenced by the realisation that Paddington Station was a REAL train station! (If you haven’t seen it, the new Paddington movie is fabulous).
It was great having Mum here for her second visit and having my sister, brother-in-law and their girls come to the Barossa for the first time. The house was crazy, crowded, messy and so full of laughter! We ate well, drank lots of great wine, delighted in the kids having a “sleepover” every night (complete with a bedtime story from my brother-in-law) and showing them around the Barossa.
Christmas Eve was definitely a highlight. Once the kids were finally asleep, the five grown ups were busy little elves. I sewed a Santa sack to replace my niece’s which was missing, there was cooking, wrapping and finally the all important delivery of presents. We watched the carols from Melbourne, laughed, drank and stayed up way to late (especially knowing little people would wake early).
Christmas Day was fabulous. The early wake-up call was worth it watching the excitement on the faces of 4 children aged 1.5 to 6 as they discovered what was inside their Santa sacks – and opened other presents. My favourite comment had to be from our 4 year old, who exclaimed so sincerely on seeing his Santa sack – “Santa has been so kind”.
Christmas lunch was fabulous and relaxed. We’d enjoyed our brilliant ham from Michael at Barossa Heritage Pork on Christmas Eve, so we had a great breakfast. Mid-morning, the first of the bubbles were opened to enjoy with scallops wrapped in Schultz bacon – which was one of my Dad’s only cooking specialties. Lunch was a 7kg turkey, which I cooked. Thanks to a Maggie Beer recipe and the advice of using 2 oven bags, my first turkey cooking experience was stress free and delicious. It went very nicely with bacon wrapped stuffing rolls and duck fat potatoes from Donna Hay, some more veg and of course a sparkling shiraz from Peter Lehmann. Our raspberry, white chocolate and nougat “pudding” was amazing (and easy) and our simplified version of a Black Forrest Cake (a choc brownie with fresh cherries covered in cream and grated chocolate) as requested by the 6 year old birthday boy was a big hit!
The rest of the holiday was a lovely mix of showing the family around the Barossa, which included the following highlights:
Showing my sister and brother-in-law around the Twilight Farmer’s Market – such a lovely Christmas vibe
Lunch at St Hallett – the duck platter is a must when visiting and the magnum of Riesling we took home for dinner that night was pretty good too!
A visit to Seppeltsfield for a tasting (love that the kids get raspberry cordial while the grown-ups taste) and a Barossa Roasters coffee on the lawn
Tennis on the lawns at Jacob’s Creek – visited so we could buy a bottle of Barossa Pearl to remind Mum of the 60s – although turns out she was only allowed to drink the Lindemans version as that’s where her uncle worked
Another visit to Artisans of the Barossa where we enjoyed a bottle of Riesling (Sons of Eden Freya – new favourite) while the kids played cricket and totem tennis on the lawn. This could seriously be my favourite new summer hang-out
My first visit to Mengler’s Hill on a blue sky day. That view will always remind me of our early days here in the winter and it is even more stunning on a gorgeous day
Visiting Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop and not only seeing lots turtles but the most amazing display by one of the peacocks
Of course, there was loads of time just relaxing and enjoying each others company, reading, building Lego, playing on the triple water slide and scooting in the backyard. All in all a perfect Barossa Christmas.
I’m sure the fact that Christmas is so close is starting to fill some people with dread but I am excited, even though I can feel myself being sucked into the “oh no, I still have so much to do” mindset. But when this starts to happen, I remind myself just why I love Christmas. I’m also going to think about two lovely friends I caught up with last week. Both have had some very difficult things happen for them in the last year but they are both excited about Christmas. They are both focusing on the joy of the season and the excitement of spending time with loved ones. I think this is something we all need to focus on, rather than stressing if we have remembered every present and will have enough food.
I love the preparations, the shopping, the wrapping, decorating the house and cooking. I like planning for Christmas lunch, which is now followed by a family birthday party for our eldest who arrived at 3.47pm on Christmas Day 6 years ago. I’m especially excited this year because we are back in Australia, and able to buy all our ingredients including fabulous local produce. We have already ordered our ham from Michael at Barossa Heritage Pork and I’m now trying to decide which of the glazes featured in this month’s Gourmet Traveller we’ll use.
I’m still hoping we’ll be able to continue our tradition of oysters and prawns with bubbles mid-morning, so the big decision is which meat we’ll enjoy alongside the ham. I’m leaning towards a turkey or goose. The options for sides and desserts are endless although we still need to decide if anyone is cooking pudding. I’m hoping to start cooking my cakes in the next week or so (sadly the ants got into one batch) and I’ve decided to have a go a making some fruit mince tarts. I’m not game to attempt a gingerbread house (the last few years the boys have decorated a ready-assembled one from Hanoi Cooking Centre) but I am going to attempt some Christmas trees made out of layers of star biscuits both for the table and as gifts for teachers. And if I don’t succumb to the heat, some traditional Danish biscuits are also planned.
This year will be extra special because it will be the first time we have had the family together in our house and it will be our first Christmas with our youngest niece and cousin, who has just hit that age where she’ll be into everything.
Being back in Australia this year, it does feel like the Christmas shopping season starts earlier and earlier, even with Halloween now being a bigger event than before. As excited as I’d like to get by seeing all the decorations, but I can’t help but feel that seeing all that in October and November has people stressed even earlier, and has them spending more and more. I read something from an American writer yesterday who said they like to have everything purchased before Thanksgiving in late November so they can enjoy December as a family without the stress of shopping. While it does makes sense, I have such fond memories of the excitement of finally going out to do Christmas shopping and having Santa photos in mid December once school finished.
When it comes to buying presents, I’m torn between surprising people with something nice and buying something they really want. I’m glad that for the last few years my family has been big on Christmas lists. It’s still a surprise to open gifts on Christmas Day and everyone has something they really want or need, and doesn’t have to feel guilty about immediately logging on to eBay!
Santa still calls at our house and we have been having fun working out what the boys will write on their lists, at the same time reminding them that Santa can’t buy everything. I think the message is getting through! We also had a special shopping trip last weekend, partly to think about their lists, but mainly for each of the boys to choose a present to be put under the giving tree at our local shopping centre. I was inspired by a discussion on philanthropy at a recent conference I attended and we decided that at 4 and almost 6, the boys should start to understand the joy of giving and helping those less fortunate than they are.
My goal for this weekend is to write a list of everything I would like to do for Christmas and then make a plan and work out just when all this cooking, shopping and decorating is going to happen. I’ll share it with you on the blog next week.
What are you most excited about this Christmas?
And what will be on your table at Christmas Lunch?
It’s 10 weeks to Christmas today! Now I know that statement will probably strike fear into the hearts of many dreading the onslaught on Christmas shopping crowds, bad carols and family get-togethers, but I am one of those slightly annoying people who loves Christmas. I love counting down and preparing for it.
However for the last 6 years I have either been pregnant (our eldest was born on his due date of Christmas Day – late in the day after a loooong labour), studying a language with a toddler, packing up a house to move overseas or living overseas. So it’s the first time in a very long time that I feel like I can really focus on the countdown. This year is even more special because after almost 10 years together, it will be the first time Simon and I have hosted Christmas. So we’ll have my Mum, my sister and her husband, and their two girls all in the Barossa.
So, I thought I would try and post a weekly update on our Christmas plans and hopefully share some recipes and inspiration. A year as an exchange student in Denmark had a big impact on my Christmas celebrations (and on me generally) so you’ll see a real Scandinavian influence. And of course, now we’re in the Barossa, I’m expecting we’ll be exposed to some German traditions – and food.
Christmas growing up was always fun and usually just my family and my grandparents for lunch before we joined friends at their place for dinner. Grandma always did the pudding and from age 16 I have made the fruitcake from the same Women’s Weekly recipe. Apart from soaking it a bit longer (usually a month if I can), adding ginger and being a bit heavier handed on the brandy, it’s pretty much the same recipe.
When I was thinking about this post, I thought back to where this cake had been made over the years. Starting in Wollongong it has also been made in Denmark, Canberra, China, Vietnam and now the Barossa. I think I have made it almost every year since 1990 probably with the exception of the year I cam back from China.
The recipe itself (which I’ll share below) makes one large square cake or two smaller ones. In the past I have usually done only 2 or maybe 3 batches but this year I’m doing 4. As it takes about 3.5 hours to cook, I’ll be looking forward to not spending a whole day cooking. I’m also looking forward to being able to enjoy some cake earlier than Christmas Eve!
So far this is the only part of our Christmas menu that is set, but I’m looking forward to making the most of fabulous Barossa produce. I’m also planning to make some traditional Danish biscuits for the first time in many years and I’m planning some Gingerbread star centrepieces.
I’d love to know what traditions and foods you have. It would be lovely if you could share below.
Rich Fruit Cake Recipe
Cake can be made 2 months ahead
2 cups (300g) currants
1 ½ cups (250g) sultanas
1½ cups (250g) chopped raisins (although I usually don’t bother to chop)
1/3 cup each chopped glace pineapple, glace ginger, glace apricots (1 cup total)
½ cup chopped glace cherries (I usually buy the mixed bag)
½ cup mixed peel
1 cup (150g) brazil nuts (chopped)
¾ cup brandy or apple juice
250 g butter
2 teaspoons vanilla essence
1 2/3 cups (410g) dark brown sugar, firmly packed
2 teaspoons grated orange rind
¼ cup orange juice
2 tablespoons strawberry jam
2 ½ cups plain flower
1 teaspoon each – ground cinnamon, ground nutmeg and ground ginger
¼ cup brandy or apple juice, extra.
I usually soak the fruit for about a month but you can soak overnight and I usually add the nuts a couple of days before I’m going to cook the cakes
On the day of cooking:
Set oven to slow (150 Celsius but check your oven, fan forced may need to be cooler – so keep an eye on your oven the first time you make these).
Grease a deep 20cm square cake pan, line base and sides with 3 layers of brown or greaseproof paper, bringing paper about 5cm above top edges of pan.
Cream butter, vanilla essence and sugar in a bowl with electric mixer. Add eggs one at a time, beating only until combined between each addition.
Stir in rind, juice and jam, and then stir in sifted dry ingredients in 2 batches.
Stir in fruit mixture; mix well.
Spread mixture evenly into pared pan and bake in a slow oven for 3.5 hours or until cooked when tested.
Brush top evenly with extra brandy, cover with foil, let cool in the pan overnight.
I have also made this as two smaller square cakes (15cm) which take about 3 hours each.
Suitable to freeze
Not suitable to microwave.
Recipe from: The Australian Women’s Weekly, December 1990
My plan to reserve Tuesdays as “test kitchen Tuesdays” to try new recipes came unstuck pretty quickly, but mainly because I have been cooking a lot of different things. That’s not to say that there is a tasty, Master Chef worthy, Instagrammable plate on the table every night (in fact tonight, it’s a fairly standard spaghetti bolognaise) but I have been experimenting with a few new recipes.
Apart from having access to great seasonal, local produce, my main reason for cooking differently has really been about having the time – not only to cook, but also to search through recipe books and magazines to start with. Suddenly I don’t feel quite so guilty about our huge collection of cookbooks and magazine subscriptions because we are actually using them.
Here’s just a sample of what I’ve cooked up this past week:
Caramel Brownie with Toffee Macadamias – inspired by a Toffee Pecan Brownie in Donna Hay #59, 10th Birthday edition Oct/Nov 2011.
I chose this recipe largely because I wanted something to go with my second attempt at vanilla ice cream that I could do in advance as we were having friends to dinner on Saturday night after visiting the Adelaide Show. It was delicious but turned out to be way too much for 4 people (better for say…24 people) and very rich (450 grams of chocolate and about the same amount of butter will do that). The toffee macadamias were good and I was excited to make these and the caramel from scratch.
Eight hour roast lamb from What Katie Ate by Katie Quinn Davies(who I’m looking forward to meeting when she speaks at a lunch in the Barossa next month)
Spending the day at home on Sunday meant I was inspired to put the roast I had bought for dinner into the oven mid-morning. We have a huge rosemary bush at the front of the house and while I didn’t have as much garlic the recipe suggested, it was still great. I couldn’t believe how easily the lamb shredded.
I didn’t have all the ingredients for the suggested dressing so improvised with parsley, mint, lemon juice, olive oil and some of the roasted garlic and served with greens with my favourite Maggie Beer’s vincotto and a Belicious Petersham inspired roasted cauliflower with goats curd.
Finally, on Tuesday night it was Hoi An chicken rice, probably inspired by thinking about Hoi An for my blog post on Monday. I started off looking at the Morning Glory cookbook from a restaurant we liked in Hoi An and which we had used before, but ended up using my new Real Vietnamese Cooking from our friends Tracey and Andreas from Hanoi Cooking Centre. This cookbook will always have a special place in my heart (and kitchen) because Tracey and Andreas became really good friends during our time in Hanoi and we watched this book come to life with beautiful photos from Michael Fountalakis, who I was lucky to do a photography walking tour of Hanoi with during one of his visits.
While the recipe would traditionally use a whole chicken, I only had thigh fillets and these worked quite well. Unfortunately the Kikkoman soy sauce seemed a little salty for the soy chilli dipping sauce – so I am starting to think I’ll buy salt reduced from now on, because it’s always easier to add salt. I am also not convinced that Thai fish sauce is the same, but I am yet to find Vietnamese fish sauce. I need to try and work out where the best Vietnamese supermarkets are in Adelaide because there are loads more recipes I would like to try and recreate.
I’ve always liked cooking and from a young age, Mum (who is actually a fantastic cook but dislikes it), encouraged us to cook. By my early teens I was cooking (mainly desserts) for Mum & Dad’s dinner parties. But despite a slight addiction to cookbooks and several cooking magazine subscriptions, my cooking in recent years has been limited to odd moments of inspiration and a lot of simple, functional and usually kid friendly stuff (because for some reason two “foodies” have created a couple of picky eaters – but that is a post in itself). The last 3.5 years with an abundance of good local Vietnamese food and a housekeeper meant I cooked even less.
Part of my fantasy about moving to the Barossa Valley was about food. From early this year when I started following the Farmer’s Market on social media, I decided this is where I wanted to live, in a place where food is almost as much a part of the history and culture as wine. So far we have visited the Farmer’s Market every Saturday since we arrived and have been inspired by seasonal fresh produce.
As Mum is visiting we decided to take her to Maggie Beer’s Farm Shop for lunch yesterday, which is only about 10 minutes from home. I was already thinking of a roast chicken, but the visit inspired me to use the bottle of verjuice I’d purchased on my last visit and the copy of Maggie’s Table I’d had for about 12 years and make her Roast Chook with Garlic and Verjuice. I then discovered the Salted Brandy Caramel and decided that it deserved some good homemade vanilla ice cream – although Maggie herself does suggest on the label it could just be eaten out of the jar!
So began preparations for a fancier than usual Tuesday night dinner (previous weeks have been Lego Movie inspired Taco Tuesdays) and I decided that I would do this every week as a way to improve my cooking skills and cook the dishes I would want to serve for a dinner party but might be too scared to experiment with if guests were coming.
The chicken was paired with Parmesan polenta (super easy), beetroot (from the market) with Woodside’s Lemon Myrtle Cheever and greens (also from the market) with Maggie Beer’s vincotto.
The chicken was delicious and so moist especially with the reserved pan juices but I learned that in future our non fan-forced oven requires slightly longer cooking times. Adding the extra verjuice and water at 20 minute intervals was a bit more work that my normal chicken cooking method but actually helped me to catch-up up on some much needed study in nice 20 minute bursts.
The side dishes worked well with the chicken and dinner was enjoyed by all (including the little people).
Dessert was probably where I went a little over the top to attempt a complicated vanilla bean ice cream. This was the third time I’d used my Cuisinart Ice Cream maker and the first time I’d used one of the more complicated custard based recipes. Again many of the ingredients were from the Farmer’s Market including Jersey Fresh milk and cream and Tathra Homestead eggs. I added the salted caramel towards the end, but given the richness of the ice cream, it might have been better to just drizzle a little over when serving – but otherwise very tasty!
I’m now looking forward to my trip to the market on Saturday for inspiration for next Tuesday – and the excuse to pull out another cookbook from the collection.