A trip to Wellington, then a soup and a scone.

Every time I travel to New Zealand, it feels as though I’ve fallen down the rabbit hole and ended up in a place that might not be physically that far away, yet seems worlds apart from my daily life. Paradise, perhaps? Last week, paradise was Wellington, at the southern tip of the North Island of New Zealand. A place where you’re seemingly only one block away from good coffee, great food, and plenty of scenery to inhale.

If you ever find yourself there, I would recommend a walk around the bay, or a trip to Somes Island, which is a mere 20 minutes away by boat. Or steel yourself with a breakfast burrito from Fidel’s Cafe or Floriditas’ eggs on toast before a hike up Mt. Wellington, then come back down in anticipation of dinner at Ortega Fish Shack. On Sundays, both the City Market and Harbourside Market are great places to visit for a self-styled breakfast degustation. If it’s feijoa season, you can get the sweet, perfumed fruit at the markets for as little as $2/kg. And if it rains too much and you want to stay dry, the Wellington City Library has a collection of graphic novels that would rival most actual book stores. Which is exactly my idea of an indoor paradise.

Now that we’re back home and the weather has gotten a little cooler, I’ve started thinking about soups and braises for dinner. While we were away, I came across a recipe by Dean Brettschneider for sweet plaited scones which I’d planned to make over the weekend. Somehow that never eventuated and one evening, to accompany a hot bowl of roasted cauliflower soup, we had these savoury scone loaves instead.

The scone dough is quick to make, since it precludes the proving time required with yeasted loaves, and is easily adapted to include a range of fillings; both sweet and savoury. For our dinner, I made one with herb and cheese, and another with Branston pickle and cheese. Both were equally well received.

Plaited Scone Loaves :
(makes 2 small plaits; adapted from a recipe by Dean Brettschneider from Global Baker)

380g plain flour
pinch of sea salt
25g baking powder
60g soft unsalted butter
1 egg
190g milk

In a bowl, combine the flour, salt and baking powder. Rub the butter into the flour mixture, then add the egg and milk and gently combine to form a dough. Divide the dough in 2 portions.

Roll the first portion into a rectangle roughly 30cm long x 20cm wide, with the longest side facing you. Spread a thin layer of soft butter (1-2 tablespoons) over the dough then sprinkle your filling of choice over the dough, leaving a 1cm border all around. Roll the dough up tightly, pressing the ends together. Cut the roll in half, lengthways. With both cut sides facing upwards, intertwine the two strands of sliced dough to form a simple plait. It will look a little like this. Place the plait on a greased or lined baking tray. Repeat the above with the second portion of dough.

Preheat 175’C oven, then bake the plaits for 30 minutes or until golden brown.

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The Cheese Course

(Pecorino Stagionato sotto fieno e miele and accompaniments)

Following on from the bread we baked for the banquet, our next responsibility was the cheese course.

This is a cheese course that almost didn’t happen. It was beset with dramas from the very beginning, which meant we had to restart our planning several times over. The initial idea was to serve a ‘red vein cheese’, a wine streaked version of a blue-vein cheese, and a quirky nod to the theme of “Blood, Bones & Butter” that was chosen in homage to Gabrielle Hamilton. This was nixed when they decided the chefs shouldn’t take the theme too literally. Winding down many side streets and blind alleys later, we finally, with much expert navigation from Katrina Birchmeier of Garagistes, settled on this.

-A beautiful pecorino from Tuscany, aged with honey and hay.
-2010 Moriki Shuzo ‘Suppin Rumiko no Sake’. An artisanal sake with hints of pear and brown sugar, made by a female brewer.
-Accompaniments selected to echo the flavours of the sake : malt barley and cumin candied carrots, an apple and shiso paste and paradise pears pickled in sake, rice vinegar and brown sugar (actual versions not pictured, because I’m writing this in retrospect). All served on a cracker plate flavoured with organic rice syrup.

Of course, the dramas didn’t end there. Somehow in the process of transporting all our food from the prep kitchen to the dinner venue, two blocks of cheese got left on a sidewalk. When the error was discovered, I received a very ‘calm duck above water but paddling frantically underneath’ kind of phone call, which prompted me to race down escalators and run up and down the street in the middle of the city, shouting into my phone, “I’m in front of Prada! Is this where you parked? I can’t see it! I can’t see it!”. $300 of misplaced cheese would do that to a person.

The cheese was eventually located and aside from the general deliciousness with regards to this course (my favourite), there’s another positive to all of this. There may never be a definitive answer to the question of changing light bulbs, but I now know how many chefs it takes to lose a block of cheese.

Next, the dessert course.

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Cheese in Cracker

I probably should be telling you about how good these crackers were. How easy they were to make, and how thrilling it was to pull them out of the oven, puffed up like little pillows for chipmunks. How, after they were assembled, you could bite into one and warm cheese would flood instantly into your mouth, caressing every single tastebud. Yes, every tastebud. Even the ones that usually only perk up in the presence of panfried brussel sprouts with chestnuts, or brownie crusts. Personally speaking, that is.

I should be telling you that these crackers, with their bellies full of cheese, were equally good topped with homemade carrot and orange marmalade. The marmalade, being eye-catchingly orange in colour, textured and vibrant in flavour, was one of the most simple but astonishingly good things I had made of late.

I should be telling you about these crackers, but what stuck in my mind most was the bit of effort it took to talk B into buying a syringe from the chemist for me, on his way home from work. How reluctant he was to do it at first, because, I mean, a syringe? What would people think!

(Tell them it’s for injecting cheese into crackers, I told him. I’d rather say it’s for drugs, he replied dryly. At least they won’t look at me as strangely.)

After a bit more cajoling, he finally acquiesced, but oh, how embarrassed he was when the chemist gave him a disapproving look, saying, “We don’t do that sort of thing here”, when he asked for a needle that would fit the syringe.

I could be telling you all these things, but I think all you really need to know is, yes, thank goodness, there is a recipe :

Cheese in Cracker :
(from Grant Achatz’s Alinea)

Cracker Dough :
215g warm water
13g fresh yeast
4g sugar
470g plain flour
4g kosher salt
55g melted butter
kosher salt

In bowl of stand mixer, stir together water, yeast, and sugar. Let stand for 5 minutes to proof yeast. Add flour, 4g salt, and butter. Attach bowl to mixer, fit mixer with dough hook, and beat on low speed for about 6 minutes, or until dough comes together and forms firm ball. Remove bowl from mixer, cover, and let dough rise in warm place for 25 minutes. Then refrigerate bowl overnight.

The following day, transfer dough to warm place. Divide dough into 4 equal pieces. Line sheet tray with parchment. Preheat oven to 230’C. Using rolling pin or pasta machine, roll out 1 piece of dough about 2mm thick. Save remaining dough for another use. Cut dough sheet into 8 2.5cm squares. Transfer squares to prepared sheet tray. Season squares liberally with salt.

Bake for 6 minutes. Each cracker will puff in center and turn golden brown. Let cool on wire rack to room temperature. Using needle of syringe, punch 1 small hole in each cracker. Reserve in airtight container.

Cheddar Cheese Sauce :
150g aged Wisconsin Cheddar cheese
150g whole milk
6g kosher salt
4g sugar

Grate cheese on large holes of box grater. Transfer cheese to blender. In small saucepan, bring milk to a simmer. Remove from heat and pour into blender. Add salt and sugar and blend on high speed until cheese has melted and liquid is very smooth. Pass through chinois into small container. Cover and reserve in warm place until ready to fill crackers.

To assemble and serve : Fill syringe with 30cc of cheese sauce. Using hole made with syringe needle, inject sauce into cracker. Do not overfill or cracker will burst.

[Notes : For the cheese sauce, I used what I had – a mixture of aged Cheddar and Parmesan. In the absence of a syringe needle, a sharp skewer works well to create a neat hole in the cracker large enough for the nozzle to transfer the cheese sauce. The sauce does not leak out once cracker is filled, but the cracker will start to soften over time.]

Carrot and Orange Marmalade :
(by Dan Hunter; from V.EAT Sept/Oct 2008)

850g carrots, peeled, coarsely grated
Juice and finely grated zest of 2 limes
Juice and finely grated zest of 2 lemons
200ml orange juice
820g caster sugar

Combine carrots, 60ml lime juice, 160ml lemon juice, lime and lemon zests and orange juice in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.

The following day, transfer the mixture to a heavy-based saucepan, add sugar and cook over medium heat for 1 hour or until syrup is reduced and sticky. Transfer to an airtight container and cool. Marmalade will keep, refrigerated, for up to 2 months. Makes 2 1/2 cups.

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