Category Archives: Cool Things

Halloween Gingerbread Men

These dismembered, bloodied and bandaged gingerbread men are so much fun to make and decorate. Make a whole batch of all one design, or mix them up. The gingerbread recipe is one I have used for years from a Donna Hay magazine, but I add a little fresh ginger to it for extra taste and zing, and reduce the sugar a little.

Makes approx 12 gingerbread men.

For the gingerbread men:

  • 2.5 cups plain flour
  • 125 g soft butter
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup golden syrup
  • 1 teaspoon bicarb soda
  • 2 teaspoons ground ginger (powdered)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger

For the icing:

  • 1 egg white
  • 1 cup icing sugar
  • red and black food colouring (get the good quality gel pastes from a specialty store, you won’t get great colour from the supermarket ones)

Beat the butter and sugar in an electric mixer until creamy. Add the golden syrup and beat until combined. Add the fresh grated ginger. Sift the flour, bicarb soda and powdered ginger and mix until combined.  Knead to form a dough, wrap in plastic and refrigerate for half an hour.

Heat the oven to 190c.

Roll out the dough between two sheets of baking paper until roughly half a centimetre thick. It will be quite crumbly and this is normal.

Cut out the gingerbread men using a cutter. Tip: dip the cookie cutter in flour to stop it sticking to the dough.

Slash your gingerbread men according to your fancy, carefully lift them onto a baking tray lined with baking paper, and cook for 10-12 minutes.

Allow to cool on a rack completely before icing.

Mix the icing sugar and egg white until a smooth, thick paste forms. You don’t want it too runny so add more icing sugar until you have a workable, thick consistency.

Divide icing into three bowls, add the red food colouring to one, and the black to another.

Using a small tipped icing nozzle, or a plastic icing syringe from a specialty store, ice your biscuits as you please.

A few tips:

  • If you can, have three nozzles and bags so you don’t have to do all one colour first, then rinse and do the next colour.
  • You can also use small ziplock plastic bags with a tiny piece of the corner snipped off.
  • Have a damp clean cloth on hand for fixing mistakes, and some toothpicks will also come in handy.
  • Use wine and champagne glasses to stand the pieces in while waiting for the icing to dry, or ooze over the body artistically.
  • Have a biscuit to practice on, wipe away mistakes with a clean damp cloth, or wait for small mistakes to dry and scrape them off. This will be tricky with the coloured ones, they will leave a smudge.


Elaine: Why does it shrink?

George: It just does.

George is right. It just does shrink. Every time. And there is no answer.

Shortcrust pastry shrinkage is one of my most frustrating kitchen fails. Every time I google the subject and try yet another tip, it never works.

I have been planning to invest in some bakeware because I want to make my own pies to take to the footy. I love the tradition of a pie on a Saturday afternoon at the footy, but I can’t bring myself to eat those rat coffins, as we used to call them at school. I want to make the fillings hearty and nutritious. But I have to get the pastry right first.

After years of looking for answers, I stumbled across this tutorial on Azelia’s Kitchen – an amazing blog by Portugese born cook, Azelia. Even if you’re not interested in shortcrust pastry, do check out her blog – it is full of fantastic recipes and beautiful photos.

Azelia’s tutorial is comprehensive, has step by step photos and answers all my questions. She is brilliant.

Now it’s time for me to show shortcrust pastry who its daddy is.

Nigella Hacker

One of my favourite time sinks is the website Ikea Hacker. I love seeing the innovative and creative ideas that people come up with using Ikea products, and it’s one of a few blogs that have inspired me to become DIY.

In the spirit of this site, I thought I’d devote a post to Nigella recipes that I’ve changed. I was prompted to do so when I read a review of Nigella’s recent appearance at the Melbourne Food and Wine Show, during which she was reported to have been interested in ways people adapt her recipes.

So here are my Nigella hacks – much loved Nigella recipes that I have adapted.

  1. As a general rule, I halve her sugar quantity, and it is always sweet enough.
  2. Chocolate Cheesecake: as Graham crackers are an unknown in Australia, I use a combination of Choc Ripple and Oreo biscuits for the base, processed with butter and hold the cocoa. Also, I do not drizzle chocolate topping over it as it’s already waaaaaay rich enough. A simple sprinkling of cocoa powder is perfectly fine. And the last time I made it, I substituted the sour cream for thick plain yoghurt (the Greek style ones are best) and I did not taste the difference. I have also left out the little bit of cocoa in the cheesecake mix as I don’t think it makes any difference at all.
  3. Chilli Con Carne with Cornbread Topping – Feast: I leave out the tomato sauce (ketchup) in the chilli and I don’t think you can tell at all. Otherwise, I am faithful to this chilli recipe because it is just so effing good. Do not be tempted to omit the cocoa powder, it really works. To the cornbread I add about a third of a cup of polenta, and a small tin of corn kernels, to give it a little extra texture and crunch.
  4. Banana and buttermilk pancakes – Feast. These pancakes are the bomb. And I don’t even like pancakes. I made about 100 of them at my son’s school fete recently. Despite their perfection, I couldn’t resist a hack. First, I add half a teaspoon of cinnamon to the mixture which I think really improves them in a subtle way. Also, when I made them once I forgot to add the melted butter to the mixture and did not notice any difference so I now omit the butter. Finally, this is probably the only Nigella recipe where I add MORE sugar than she has indicated – a tablespoon as opposed to a teaspoon in the recipe that is in Feast (surely this is a typo?). I couldn’t find a link to these, but they are in the Feast book.
  5. Penne Alla Vodka – Feast: I use really good quality fresh ricotta instead of cream. Less saturated fat, no compromise on flavour or texture.
  6. Pumpkin and Goat Cheese Lasagne – Nigella’s Christmas: I have only made this once and if I were to make it again, I would first of all halve the quantity. There’s about $30 worth of goat cheese alone in the recipe, pushing it into the very unaffordable category. Plus it made a vast amount, so halving would still give you a substantial meal. Also, I would not use passata but would make my own tomato sauce, as it really did have a “just out of the jar” taste and I felt the extra effort to make a proper sauce would serve your investment in the goat cheese well. There is no link to this recipe on the website.
  7. Mince Pies – Nigella’s Christmas. I love her teeny tiny little star topped mince pies, which are now ubiquitous, but I don’t use her filling. Instead I use one from Gourmet Traveller because I felt it would have more flavour. I haven’t made Nigella’s filling so I have nothing to compare the ones I made to, but I thought they were smashing. Also I added some hazelnut meal to the pastry mixture which gave it a nice flecked texture and an extra flavour dimension. Here is the Gourmet Traveller recipe I used the filling for: although I omitted the very hard to find cedro.

When I have time I might devote a post to the Nigella recipes I NEVER mess with – and there are a few.

Have you got any Nigella hacks you’d like to share?

Powdered Porcini

A reader recently posted a suggestion about porcini mushrooms. She grinds them up in the food processor and uses the powder in stock and for risottos. As a great admirer of porcinis, I loved the idea but forgot about it until this week when I read a gnocchi recipe using porcini powder.

I needed no further prompting, and I made some this weekend to have with the gnocchi I made for my sister who was visiting from Sydney.

I am now a convert. Porcini powder really adds a special touch to a meal. The flavour is intense and hard to believe it comes from just one ingredient. These fungi really do punch above their weight.

You can either just grind the porcinis straight from the packet using the food processor as my reader suggested, or do what I do and roast them for half an hour at 170 c, pound them in the pestle and mortar and sift.

This morning my son and I sprinkled some on our eggs – just fabulous.


Sprinkle over pan fried gnocchi

Season vegetable/mushroom stock

Sprinkle on risotto

Sprinkle on eggs – scrambled, or an omelette

Make a porcini salt by mixing the powder with some ground salt flakes

Add to the roasting pan before making a mushroomy gravy

Super Mario Brothers Birthday Cake

Last weekend I made a birthday cake for my son’s friend’s birthday.  In a moment of insanity, I agreed to a Super Mario themed cake.  I have to say it was challenging and a lot of work. But really, the looks on the little faces made it all worthwhile. Happy 8th birthday Anthony!

I thought I would take you through how I did it step by step, in the event you have a Mario and Luigi obsessed young’un in your midst.

Here are some key pieces of advice up front:

  • Be prepared to give up a fair bit of your time to do this.  All up, the searching and shopping for ingredients and decorations, practicing and making the decorations, and baking the cake was done over a week.  I practiced some of the decorations a few days before.
  • Start making the decorations the day before, but don’t  make them any further in advance than that, as they will dry out and the colour will fade and bleed.
  • If you’re not used to baking and decorating cakes, I would really recommend buying an un-iced cake to decorate.  Having to make the cake after spending a day and a half on the decorations nearly tipped me over the edge especially as the first cake failed and I had to start again from scratch.
  • Don’t attempt the decorations on a hot day in an un-airconditioned room.  The paste will melt in your hands as you’re working with it, and will be hard to set.
  • Don’t buy expensive cake decorating utensils – you can usually improvise with things in your home already.  I did however buy a $10 pottery/clay tool kit from the craft section of an Asian import store, and it does most of the jobs of the stuff from kitchen supply stores at a fraction of the price.
  • Cut your fingernails short or use latex gloves.
  • Enlist grown up help. Get children involved in some way by all means, they will love it, but not for the whole task. You’ll end up killing each other.  Another set of adult hands will be invaluable for cleaning up and assisting however. I could not have done this without my very helpful assistant and Super Mario officionado – thanks Adam! 🙂
  • Make the decorations in the day if you can. At night, you can’t see the icing colours so well. I learned this the hard way.

What you will need:

  • Cake decorator icing/modelling paste (from a cake supply shop). There is a confusing array of cake decorating products out there.   You don’t want marzipan, or fondant, but a paste or icing.  Don’t get anything that is already hard. Soft icing can have icing sugar added to it to make it firmer, but I found it hard to soften anything that had already hardened.  If in doubt, tell them at the store what you want it for and they will advise you.
  • 1 kg icing sugar – for thickening the paste up and making the frosting.
  • Food colour gel pastes – I use Wilton pastes, they are so much better than the cheap and nasty liquid stuff
  • Fudge for the mushroom stalks
  • Nigella (black sesame) seeds for the eyes
  • Mario & Luigi figurines
  • A tube to shape the pipes around – I used the tube of a turkey baster
  • A small sharp knife
  • A small firm spatula or flat knife
  • Lid of a texta, for the mushroom spots
  • Rolling pin
  • Egg white for gluing
  • Toothpicks to hold the mushrooms in place
  • A very small paintbrush, for the egg white
  • Baking paper, as a work surface
  • Clean tweezers, for the eyes
  • A cake
  • Butter for the frosting

To make the mushrooms:

Get the paste/icing to the right consistency – it should be a little like cookie dough but not as moist.  It needs to be thick and dry enough so it doesn’t stick to your hands, but still pliable.

You’ll need about a third of a cup for the red and about half a cup for the green, for the pipes as well.  Do the red first. Put the icing/paste in a bowl and begin to add the colour, mixing until you get the right colour.

Be patient.  Getting the mixture to the right colour and consistency is more time consuming than you would think.

When its right, roll little balls to your desired size in the palm of  your hands.  I used an image I googled on the computer as a guide.  Make a little indentation with your thumb in the bottom of the mushroom, where the stalk will go.

When finished, set aside. I made four red and four green.

To make the spots: roll out a white piece of the icing very thin.  Cut out spots using the lid of a child’s texta – I found them to be the perfect size.  They are a little difficult to get out of the lid, I tapped them against the rolling pin. You’ll need 5 spots per mushroom. This will take time.  Paint spots with a dab of egg white and fix on the mushrooms in the appropriate place.

Make the stalks.  Take a piece of fudge and cut it to the right size – this is just guesswork so do your best. Roll it out on a work surface until its cylindrical.

Dab a little egg white where the eyes will go, and using tweezers, press two nigella seeds into the stalk, using your image as a guide.

Set aside on a plate covered in baking paper in the fridge. Don’t assemble the mushrooms on top of the stalks just yet.

Now do all this again for the green mushrooms. 🙂

Make the tubes.  Using the leftover green paste from the mushrooms, measure out the size you will need – by width to hold your figurines, and lengthwise, about 8 cm. If they are too long they will not stand up, as the icing will begin to soften out of the fridge.

Roll out the piece of green icing until its about half a cm thick.  Get the tube shaped object you are using to make the tube (eg turkey baster) and spray it with olive oil spray.  Drape the icing around it to fashion a tube then slide the object out.  Cut it to shape.

Roll another long thin piece out to make the lip of the tube, and fix it to one end  with a little egg white.

Smooth out any cracks, bumps or seams with a tiny bit of water on your fingertips. Take care as the icing can crumble, and don’t worry if you have a few fails here and have to start again, I did. You’ll get there!  Keep the tube upside down so the top heavy end doesn’t put too much weight on the pipe.

Make two of these and put in the fridge.

Now make the stars.  Draw the shape of the star onto a piece of baking paper and cut out.   Make up a small amount of yellow paste and roll out.  Use the star paper as a guide to cut the shape out.  Make another star that is slightly smaller and sit it on the top, to give it that 3d look.  Use a small knife or scraper to smooth it all out and shape it into the star.  Add the nigella seed eyes with a dab of egg.

Put in the fridge on baking paper with all the other decorations.

Make or buy the cake now. I used Nigella’s old fashioned chocolate cake recipe – For the icing – I used Martha Stewart’s butter cream frosting, , which I added the food colouring to.

Place the cake on a piece of baking paper and start to cover with the frosting.  Smooth it out as you go. Using a flat metal knife or spatula, smooth the surface as best you can.  Add the decorations, using toothpicks to the hold the mushrooms in place on the top.  I used a little edible glitter to create starlight shimmers off the stars, and just sprinkled clear sparkles over the whole thing to give a bit of a shimmer.

When ready, transfer the cake to the plate or board you are presenting it on, sliding out the baking paper.  Keep the cake refrigerated right up until you are ready to bring it out. If you let it sit out for long, the decorations will start to soften and anything could happen then!

Now pour yourself a well-earned glass of champagne, or make a cup of tea, and sit back and enjoy the priceless looks on the children’s faces. 🙂

Stores I use for cake making supplies:
Key Ingredient, Clifton Hill
Matchbox, Victoria Gardens
Cake Deco, Flinders Street
Essential Ingredient, Prahran Market

Caveman Drumsticks!

Why is it that children love either oversized things (think Macaulay Culkin’s pancakes in “Uncle Buck”) or tiny, miniature versions of things – like railways?

With this in mind, when I came across these giant turkey drumsticks, I swooped. Even for a turkey, these were big! Each one weighed nearly a kilo, and took as long to roast as a whole chook.

I worded up my son and his friend who came round for dinner this week about cavemen diets, then presented them with these babies.  They attacked them with a highly satisfying degree of caveman gusto.

Spice Checklist

Here’s a handy spice checklist that you can print off, and place near your spice cupboard (you could put it on a clipboard and fix to the inside of your cupboard door, for example), checking off those you’re running low on.  Just take the list to the store on your next shop.   I’ve covered most of the spices I use, but no doubt you’ll have a few of your own I haven’t thought of so I’ve left a few blank spaces at the bottom for those.

Save the file to your  computer and print off whenever you need.

From my kitchen, to yours  🙂

Spice Checklist

The Simplicity Project ~ Jenn Pike

Transform your body & fall in love with yourself with Simplicity & Ease

The Abbotsford Kitchen

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