Agar agar strawberry cheesecake

(A very late) Ramadaan Mubarak!

After the permissibility of gelatine was questioned by the local Ulema, I’ve had a niggling doubt about its ‘halaalness’. It appears that gelatine has turned into the nail polish of the food world. Some say it’s halaal – while others like SANHA say it’s completely forbidden. Then again, with some debatable practices, SANHA itself is not exactly a paragon of virtue – which leaves us back at square one: confused.

Do I still eat marshmallows? Definitely. Do I still have soft jelly sweets and Clover Sour Cream and Vital capsules? Definitely. But lately I’ve decided to start cutting back on the gelatine in my baking. Appeasing the conscience? Definitely.

Enter agar agar. Made from dried seaweed, it’s a fine off-white powder that’s also known as China grass powder – or falooda powder. It’s been used in Asian countries as a gelatine substitute for years.

The problem with agar agar, however, is that there’s a limited amount of information about how to use it. Substituting gelatine with agar agar is tricky. Too little and it doesn’t set. Too much and it becomes a solid chunk of dessert (it’s nasty, trust me). It also needs to reach boiling point to be ‘activated’.

So after some trial and error, lots of anxiety, and buckets of prayers, I present to you the airy agar-agar cheesecake.

Try making this for Eid – it offers a break from the really rich, chocolate-y things on display on the Eid table.

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AGAR AGAR STRAWBERRY CHEESECAKE

Adapted from The Diplomatic Wife and My Mom Friday

Makes one 20cm cheesecake

 

For the agar agar gel

2 ¼ teaspoons agar agar powder

6 tablespoons cold water

For the fresh strawberry puree

220g hulled and chopped ripe strawberries

2 tablespoons water

For the base

90g butter, melted

200g Nuttikrust biscuits

1 tablespoon sugar

For the cheesecake batter

250g cream cheese, left outside the fridge for an hour

1 cup whipping cream

¾ cup sugar (if you like your cheesecakes very sweet, bump it up to 1 cup. I used brown sugar because we don’t usually keep white sugar.)

 

METHOD

  1. Mix the agar agar with the 6 tablespoons of water. Set aside while you prepare the base.
  2. Crush the biscuits and mix with melted butter and sugar. Press into a well-greased 20cm springform pan and place in the freezer.
  3. Place the sliced strawberries in a saucepan together with the 2 tablespoons of water. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and puree the strawberries using a stick blender.
  4. In a clean small saucepan over moderate heat, bring the agar mixture to a simmer. Once it starts thickening, whisk until it forms a thick translucent gel. Whisk this gel into the saucepan of strawberry puree. Bring the mixture to a boil. Cook for about 30 seconds. Set aside to cool.
  5. On low speed, beat together the cream cheese and the sugar until combined, not dissolved.
  6. Beat the whipping cream until it forms firm, not stiff, peaks. Whisk the cream into the cream cheese mixture, one third at a time. The mixture will be quite stiff.
  7. Finally, whisk the now-just-warm strawberries into the cream/cream cheese mixture. Whisk it into the mixture in thirds (as always) – after the first addition, work quickly. Pour it on to the cold biscuit base. Level the surface.
  8. Refrigerate for at least 5 hours. This cheesecake is best enjoyed after at least a day, when the strawberry flavour has had time to meld with the cream cheese.

The Wondrous Workings of The Fat Duck

Heston Blumenthal must be an inspiration for photocopier salesmen everywhere. Once a photocopier salesman himself, he’s ascended the ranks in the food business to become one of its leading figures.

His remarkable journey bore a three Michelin starred restaurant called The Fat Duck, once voted the number one restaurant in the world.

The Fat Duck

The Fat Duck

I watched an episode of Masterchef: The Professionals (the UK version) and marvelled at The Fat Duck’s creations. Thing is, being Muslim comes with some unique side effects, and I suddenly wished I was the daughter of an Arab sheikh, who could hire The Fat Duck and its team for the evening to make me halaal versions of all their beautiful dishes. Until some Arab sheikh realises I’m his lost daughter, the restaurant’s dishes will remain separated from me by a TV screen.

However … it still doesn’t stop one from being amazed at the wondrous workings of this innocuous-looking restaurant.

To get an idea of what I’m talking about, watch this episode. It’s part one of the season five finale.

Now go and watch the other seasons of Masterchef: The Professionals. It’s one of the my favourite shows on the box at the moment.

Breakfast apple pancakes

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A while ago Lorraine Pascale appeared on Masterchef AU for a masterclass in cake-making. There she said something that validated my years of shortcuts in the kitchen.

“Sifting flour is unnecessary.”

And just like that, the heavens opened up and shone light onto my TV. Sifting … is … unnecessary! No more hauling the sieve out of some dark cupboard! No more sifting flour over the entire kitchen counter! No more washing the sieve! LAZY BAKERS UNITE!

She went on to explain that 21st century flour is sifted many times during production, so unless there are bits like bran that you want to get rid of, sifting is unnecessary.

But I digress. This recipe for apple pancakes doesn’t – as you may have guessed – require any sifting. It’s a simple mix-it-all-together that produces a filling breakfast. Served with lots of dripping syrup, it makes great comfort food too.

BREAKFAST APPLE PANCAKES

Adapted from Fast Kids’ Food

Serves 4

1 and ½ cup brown/wholewheat flour

1 and ½ teaspoons baking powder

¼ cup brown sugar

50g oats

1 and ¼ cups milk

30g butter, melted

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla essence

2 apples, peeled and grated

1 teaspoon vegetable oil, for frying

  1. In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, brown sugar and oats). Create a well in the centre of the dry ingredients.
  2. Now pour each wet ingredient (milk, egg, vanilla essence) into the well. Using that whisk, mix them together in the centre first, then start incorporating the dry ingredients from the sides. Whisk together until the batter is smooth and homogeneous.
  3. Stir in the grated apples.
  4. Stand for at least 15 minutes. You can refrigerate the batter for use the next morning.
  5. Get a non-stick frying pan going on low heat. Oil the pan using a piece of paper towel that has soaked up a teaspoon of oil.
  6. Pour half a cup of batter into the pan, spreading with a tablespoon, to create a pancake about 16 centimetres in diameter (yup, I know, huge – but satisfying).
  7. When it starts to bubble all over, turn it over. Cook for about 30 seconds longer – or lift up one edge and peek at the underside, which should be golden. Serve with syrup or honey.

*Update: a reader messaged me to ask if these pancakes are supposed to be fluffy. Nope, they aren’t. The grated apples make the pancakes very moist and non-cake-like. If you are in fact looking for a fluffy pancake with apples, add some chopped cooked apples to this batter - it’s a good recipe that doesn’t require buttermilk.*

 

Peanut butter chocolate crunch ice cream (without an ice cream maker)

I’m going to start with an apology.

I am sorry that there will be no pictures of my own finished product today. So when I say this ice cream is amazing, well, you have to take my word for it.

This was the picture that got me making this recipe:

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Such a feast for the eyes. The warm colour of the ice cream imparted by the peanut butter; those chunks of crispy chocolate, crunchy sugar cones and crispy cereal juxtaposed with the ice cream’s melty softness; the coolness of the exterior, giving a clean look to the whole picture. Well done Love & Olive Oil. I wish I could take photos like you guys do.

Inspired by Love & Olive Oil’s recipe, but knowing full well that I don’t have an ice cream maker, I used one of my favourite ice cream recipes instead. It’s a no-churn recipe – which eliminates the inconvenience of the freeze-beat-repeat method – BUT it still gives you an incredibly smooth, creamy ice cream.

Best of all, it produces ice cream that looks exactly like the beautiful picture above.

If you like peanut butter, this recipe will transport you to a land filled with peanut butter, chocolate and sheer joy.

If you don’t, then fear not, you will be a convert after this.

PEANUT BUTTER CHOCOLATE CRUNCH ICE CREAM

Makes 1.2 litres

For the ice cream

1/2 cup milk

2/3 cup smooth peanut butter (not 100% peanut butter)

4 egg yolks

2/3 cup caster sugar

2 teaspoons vanilla essence

1 cup fresh cream

For the chocolate crunch

1/2 cup dark chocolate chips, or one slab of dark chocolate

1 tablespoon smooth peanut butter

1 and 1/4 cup Rice Krispies

1. Heat the milk to boiling point. Pop the peanut butter in a bowl; pour the hot milk over it and whisk until smooth. Immediately after you mix the two ingredients together, it will turn grainy and odd-looking. Don’t freak out. Keep whisking and it will become a smooth, homogenous mixture. Leave aside.

2. Over a bain marie*, beat the egg yolks and the caster sugar together until thick and pale (about 4-5 minutes). Remove from the heat, add the vanilla essence and beat on moderate speed until it leaves a complete figure-of-eight trail.

3. Beat the cream until firm peaks form. Leave aside.

4. Whisk the peanut butter-milk mixture into the yolk mixture.

5. Whisk the beaten cream into the mixture.

6. Pour into a container and freeze for about four hours. It should be semi-solid. Stir in the chocolate crunch. Return to the freezer for a relaxing overnight rest.

Chocolate crunch

1. Line a baking tray with a 30cm x 20cm piece of parchment.

2. Melt the chocolate together with the peanut butter.

3. Stir in the rice krispies, making sure each rice krispie is coated evenly.

4. Spread mixture in a single layer on parchment. Freeze until required.

5. As soon as the ice cream is semi-solid, chop the chocolate crunch into small pieces, stir it into the ice cream and freeze overnight.

Before serving, leave outside for a few minutes.

*A bain marie is just a fancy term for a double boiler. When recipes call for a bain marie, I bring a small pot of (about 400mls) water to a slow, rolling boil, then pop a heatproof bowl over the top. The bowl must not touch the water; it is only in contact with the steam. The ingredients (in this case, the yolks and the sugar) are placed in this bowl. If the bowl is in contact with the boiling water, or if you do not beat/whisk/stir the mixture while it’s over the heat, the yolks will cook.

If you make this ice cream, please leave a comment to let me know how well the recipe worked for you :)

 

Quick linguine with broccoli, chilli and garlic

This is why I feel sorry for broccoli:

1. No-one really cares that it’s packed with nutrients like zinc, potassium, calcium, vitamins A, B, C, and K as well as both insoluble and soluble fibre

2. It’s a distinctly unfashionable vegetable

3. It tastes like it comes from the planet Zorg.

Subsequently, it’s the superfood that never was.

I’m always on the lookout for recipes that make healthy things taste good, so when my aunt placed a bowl of pasta and broccoli before us this December, I was impressed. The pasta actually tasted good!

The original recipe for my version used the entire head of broccoli, stems and all. I’m taking the broccoli-loving thing one step at a time so I discarded most of the stems. If you’re less wasteful and more broad-minded than I am, click here for some great ideas for using up those stems.

Three essential ingredients in this recipe really help to eliminate that Zorgy flavour from the broccoli: lots of garlic, a little chilli and some vegetable stock.

QUICK LINGUINE WITH BROCCOLI, CHILLI AND GARLIC

Serves 4

300g linguine (or spaghetti)

2 tablespoons of powdered vegetable stock

1 head of broccoli, cut into florets, stems discarded

4 tablespoons olive oil

6 cloves garlic, grated

1/2 teaspoon finely chopped fresh red chilli (or more!)

Salt, to taste

pecorino or parmesan cheese, to serve

1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Add one tablespoon of stock powder. Throw in broccoli florets. Cook for two minutes, then remove from water using a slotted spoon. *Do not discard the water!*

2. Add the second tablespoon of stock to the boiling water. Cook the pasta in that broccoli-infused water (yum) until done. Drain.

3. In another pot, heat up the olive oil over moderate heat. Saute garlic until aromatic. Add the chilli, followed by the broccoli florets. Keep the broccoli moving about in the pot. Cook for up to minute, depending on how crunchy you want your broccoli.

4. Add the pasta; season.

5. Serve hot, topped with cheese.

No parmesan or pecorino? No worries! Use any white cheese instead; but double the amount of stock you use.

Sydney: so much food lovin’

‘So how was Sydney?’

Here’s my answer:

My top 5 food experiences

 5. The fish market

The Sydney Fish Market deserves an ode. The sheer number of seafood varieties was amazing. In South Africa, crab is crab (that’s if you get lucky. Most of the time we’re subjected to those weird-looking crab sticks that aren’t really crab at all). In the Fish Market . . . wow. From the live crabs that feebly brandish their pincers at you to the scallops with roe to eagle ray wings . . . aaahh.

 

Scampi look like permanently surprised prawns

Scampeh

Who knew manta ray was edible?

Who knew that manta ray was edible?

Well if you can't decide, just have a bit of everything!

Well if you can’t decide, just have a bit of everything!

4. Flourless chocolate cake from Pattison’s

I’ve always thought that there’s a fine line between ‘deliciously rich’ and ‘nauseatingly rich’ – a balance that’s difficult to achieve. This flourless chocolate cake was everything a flourless chocolate cake should be. It floored you with an instant chocolate hit; the hazelnuts kept it from turning into something emetic; the texture was perfect; and the portion was just large enough to share.

3. La Duree

La Duree is located in one of the classiest quarters of Westfield in Sydney’s CBD, surrounded by the likes of Prada, Gucci and Louboutin. The macarons that are sold in this branch of La Duree aren’t flown over from Paris as commonly thought. They are produced in Switzerland, flash-frozen and flown to Australia. While it does take some shine off the experience, the beautiful décor more than makes up for it. Beautiful pastel colours abound, everything light, delicate and so sumptuous.

Now about those macarons . . .

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My aunt gifted my lucky sister with a box of eight macarons. The flavours on offer were a good mix of interesting and common. She picked lemon, rose, salted caramel, coffee, pistachio, yuzu ginger, Venezuela pure origin chocolate and orange blossom.

(L to R) Venezuelan chocolate, rose, salted caramel, lemon, yuzu ginger, orange blossom, coffee, pistachio (apologies for the picture quality)

(L to R) Venezuelan chocolate, rose, salted caramel, lemon, yuzu ginger, orange blossom, coffee, pistachio (apologies for the picture quality)

THE WINNER: the rose. It was perfection; an amazing non-chewy creation with an airy rose-flavoured cream in the centre.

THE RUNNER-UP: the Venezuelan chocolate. Two macaron discs that encased a silky smooth chocolate filling which hung in some heavenly space in between ganache and a rich chocolate frosting.

 2. Al-Aseel

Sydney has a huge Arab community which reflects in their food scene. We tried authentic Lebanese cuisine in Greenacre’s Al Aseel. We’re familiar with the more famous middle Eastern exports like hummus, baba ganouj and falafel, but Al Aseel opens up a whole world of Lebanese yumminess.

For starters we had sambousek, a pastry filled with melty cheese and fattoush, which is the Most Delicious Healthy Thing In The World (and must be capitalized to emphasise that). The fattoush was a heavily dressed mixture of parsley, lettuce, spring onions and radish, with crunchy pieces of something that tasted like fried samoosa pur stirred through it. Turned out to be ‘crunchy fried Lebanese bread’.

Lavash (lebanese bread) and fattoush

Lavash (lebanese bread) and fattoush

For mains we had skewers of shish taouk, lamb kafta (similar to seekh kebaab) as well as lemon garlic chicken, which came covered in a creamy lemon sauce. They all were flanked by hummus, toum (a creamy seriously garlicky garlic dip), falafel and tabouli  (a salad of parsley, onions and tomatoes, dressed with lemon juice, olive oil and garlic).

Dips: L to R: toum, baba ganouj, hummus

Dips: L to R: toum, baba ganouj, hummus

There was nothing on the table that we could fault.

Side note: shout out to Sumi for ordering all the right things!

Other side note: Pity the person doing all the garlic peeling in Al Aseel’s kitchens.

 

1. Grocery shopping

Really. Grocery shopping takes the number one spot. A good Australian supermarket is like a kiddies’ ball pond for food-lovers. I spent an obscene amount of time perusing the aisles of the local Coles. Mainstream retailers carry quinoa milk, for God’s sake.

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Aaand speaking of quinoa: would you like it like the usual variety? Or maybe black quinoa? Or red quinoa? No? Then can I interest you in some fresh almonds instead?

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The almonds were found in Abu Salim, a family-run Arab supermarket in Greenacre, among other earthly delights like these huge mint leaves:

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Interestingly, many of their Aussie-made products proudly proclaim their origins on the label – which made me wonder, whatever happened to Proudly South African?

Honorable mentions

- The Guylian chocolate café, who served up this beautiful waffle, topped with creamy praline ice cream, accompanied by a bowl of chocolate ganache:

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- Calamari from Ocean Heart, a little fish ‘n chips shop in Brighton le Sands

-  Etihad airline food (Will post about this later on. It was shockingly good.)

-  All daily braais at ‘home’ in Sydney. Thank you Foi and Sumi – food always tastes better outdoors.

Disappointments

Burger King in Abu Dhabi International

Meh. I’d take a San Diego burger from Dish’d over Burger King ANY DAY. Their famed chicken fries tasted a bit like Mochacho’s battered chicken strips. With more MSG.

Adriano Zumbo

You can’t have watched Masterchef Australia without hearing about Zumbo. We all salivated over that croquembouche and had a mild heart attack when we saw those macarons. So, several days into our visit, my aunt drove us halfway across Sydney to Pyrmont, one of the locations of Zumbo’s patisseries.

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This is what I expected:

A brightly coloured store. Check.

A long, long queue (it was during the days preceding New Year’s Day). Nope. Quiet as a library.

Some kind of movement? Something amazing! Some kind of vibe! Some kind of ambience! Some kind of Zumbo-aura radiating around the place! Nope, nope, nope, and nope again.

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This is what I didn’t expect:

Not being able to eat anything in the store. The Brit who manned the counter said almost everything in the store contained gelatine, and that he couldn’t give us any guarantees about the non-gelatine stuff.

Ahh, the disappointment. So much disappointment. I felt like I had been let down by Zumbo himself. Australia, land of vegans and vegetarians, all of them being excluded from the magic of a Zumbaron.

The odd thing is that when my sister called the patisserie the following day to ask if the Zumbarons were vegetarian, the answer was yes. Overnight they had also become free of gelatine. Someone was lying, but who? And the annoying thing is, err … why?

So this is what we got instead:

caramel macs

It’s a poor substitute BUT it is a substitute nonetheless!