Thursday, August 30, 2007

Table Mountain Birthday

Blouberg Beach last September. The mountain keeps an eye on us.

Table Mountain is ever present in our lives here. It looms benevolently over Cape Town, enfolds the city in its skirts and even makes its presence felt way out into the country where we are, drawing our eye every morning as I drive the kids to school, gladdening our hearts when the top is free of clouds and we can see its classic profile, communicating its energy even when it is engulfed in fluffy cloud. It has a powerful aura.

For the kids a trip up in the cable car is a rare and longed for treat. Rare because it is expensive, prices aimed at tourists, locals are expected to walk up. In winter though from May to September they have a special offer, two kids per adult go free, so we try to achieve an annual trip up. Of course you can't plan too far in advance. The weather can be extremely contrary and the mountain tends coyly to gather a blanket of cloud around itself and shrug off visitors at a moment's notice. Last year we thought we'd go up on my birthday, which would have got my ticket for free too, another special for SA residents, but wind and cloud swept the plan away. This year we gave it another try.

I spent the morning looking out of the window at the passing clouds - the top of the mountain had been visible when I took the kids to school, but was there a cold front on its way? Every now and again I rang my husband in town to get him to look out of the window for a mountain top visibility report. When I fetched the kids from school the mountain top was still there but lines of sea mist seemed to be drifting towards it and fluffy clouds were puffing voluminously in its direction. After having fed the kids, I rang once more to make the decision - in the hour it would take to get there the weather could have changed again so it was a gamble. We threw the dice and decided to go for it.

We met up at the bottom of the cable car laden with spare tops and jackets but miracle of miracles the sky was clearing, the clouds off to party on the Paarl mountains instead. The cable car swirled us up the side of the mountain effortlessly in minutes, revolving as it went so everyone got to see the 360 degree view, then we emerged onto a sunny plateau, on top of the world.

Bright sunshine, cool crisp air and a feeling of soul food being replenished cocooned us with well-being. The children clambered over rocks, we ambled along winding paths, sat on a rock to open a birthday present and eventually made our way to the restaurant for exorbitantly priced ice creams.
Yellow daisies in bloom all over with me in the distance

It was so beautiful up there, looking into the distance to see our hill, watching the wisps of clouds above us and the long line of white cotton-wool puffs out at sea that reminded me of a camel train across the desert, that we hardly wanted to come back down to reality again.

A birthday cake awaited us however, nobly baked by my sister-in-law, so we dealt with the rush hour traffic with admirable equilibrium and made it home in time to cook supper and eat cake for pudding. My son had added enough candles to light up the room, but still not as many as my advanced age demanded!

Monday, August 27, 2007

Braai is South African for Barbecue

I wasn't born to a braai culture, I married into it. Barbecues in my childhood were a bit of a novelty, juggling English weather and recalcitrant charcoal to produce smoky burgers and sausages. Only when I found the South African I was to marry, did the finer points of cooking over a fire penetrate my consciousness.

Our wedding lunch in an apricot orchard here in South Africa was a braai of exceptional quality. Whole beef fillets encrusted with sea salt and black pepper, carefully cooked over glowing wood embers, tender as butter and rare inside, were the centrepiece of a South African feast. Under the auspices of his family I learned about cooking vegetables in foil parcels straight on the coals to achieve smoky, caramelised succulence - onions, butternut, potatoes. My husband, the braai master, has an unmatchable way with the tongs, turning the meat and foil packets frequently, so that they cook evenly without burning and has now refined his braai technique to use a Le Creuset casserole with a dash of wine in, at the edge of the braai, to finish off the sausages in, which produces a heavenly jus tasting of smoke, wine and sausage spice to be soaked up with plain boiled potatoes.

When we were still living in South London, we braved the neighbours' displeasure and English weather to produce many a varied barbecue, to refute a certain Radio 2 DJ's blasphemous assertion that to make a barbecue edible you have to precook everything in the oven first. In a European city you are handicapped by the smokeless fuel laws. Charcoal is OK but to get a true South African flavour to your braai it must be cooked over wood embers and there are even certain woods that are considered the best for braaiing over, the finer points of which I have yet to grasp. (For a full-on introduction to braai culture here is a site wholly dedicated to the fine art of the South African braai)
August in South Africa is however the off-season for braais, at least here in the Western Cape where we're having the wettest winter in decades. We may have barbecued in the rain in England, intrepid desperation driving us, but here we wait for the weather, assured of several months of summer and then only limited by the strength of the south-easter winds.
The deadline for WTSIM is today, the rain is pelting down outside and on Saturday when I could have braaied in the sunshine we were too busy making daisy chains, photographing flowers and lolling in the sun to set about building fires and photographing food. Such are my excuses! So for the WTSIM meatless barbecue event hosted by Cooksister, I'm having to relive last summer's braais and choose some of our favourite braaied vegetables to share. Looking back through my photo files though I discover a lapse. No photos of the vegetables to prove their existence. We must have gobbled them down too quickly. Please forgive me then if the photos are of the meat. I'll try to describe the vegetables and hope that you can visualise them without the pictures.
Our usual family braai centres on chicken wings, coated in a spice mixture that is patented by my brother-in-law. To go with it we often have a coil of lemon sausage or boerewors and a veggie pack wrapped in foil. Last summer a friend gave us a fresh marrow from his vegetable garden and on his recommendation we decided to try it on the braai. It was delicious. Thick slices of marrow, seasoned with olive oil, salt and pepper, seared with grid marks on the outside and juicy with a delicate smoky flavour within.
Barbecued Marrow Slices
Take one medium sized marrow, as fresh as can be. Cut into thick slices (approx. 1.5cm / ¾ inch) and peel. You can leave the inner seeds in till after cooking. Brush both sides generously with olive oil and season with salt and pepper. Then leave for a while for the oil to soak in. Cook on the grid, turning every few minutes, until the slices are cooked through and easily pierced with a fork. Serve straight from the fire as an accompaniment to the meat.
Barbecued butternut squash takes on a wonderful sweet, smoky flavour when cooked in foil on the embers, caramelised edges melting into inner softness, which I intensify with a liberal dash of cinnamon, to create a satisfying vegetable dish with enough flavour of braai to make vegetarians feel loved. Do plenty though because the meat eaters will also be clamouring for some. Warning - the cubes can go past caramel to charcoal if overcooked. It needs a thick layer of foil and an attentive braai chef to turn the package every so often
Butternut Squash cooked in foil on the fire.
Make a double layer of heavyweight tinfoil, which is big enough to fold over on itself to make a parcel. Smear a generous layer of butter over the centre part. Peel, de-seed and cube the butternut squash. The cubes should be roughly 1 - 1 ½ cm (½ - ¾ inch). Put them on the buttered foil. Season with salt and pepper and a generous sprinkling of cinnamon. Put several more slivers of butter on top of the butternut squash. Fold the foil over the squash and make into a loose parcel, folding the edges over securely. Cook directly on the glowing embers at the edge of the fire and turn carefully every five minutes. It should take about 30 minutes but could need a little longer depending on the heat of the fire. Open the parcel carefully to check and watch your fingers, as plenty of sizzling steam will rise up from the squash. The squash should be tender and starting to caramelise at the edges.
Vegetable kebabs
If we have vegetarians to a braai I usually do some vegetable kebabs for them and remember to keep one side of the braai grid meat free.
An assortment of red, green and yellow peppers, mushrooms marinaded in olive oil, herbs and lemon, or yoghurt and spices, alternated with chunks of courgettes and soft dried apricots, all threaded onto wooden skewers, brushed with the rest of the marinade and cooked over the fire makes a delicious vegetarian substitute for meat. The edges of the peppers char slightly, the apricots caramelise and keep the vegetables next to them moist and the marinade flavours the absorbent mushrooms and keeps them succulent.

A braai isn't just about the food though, it is a social activity, an opportunity for the family to gather around the fire, watch the sun go down, put the world to rights over a beer or a glass of wine and to cuddle up under blankets and smell your supper as it cooks in front of you.

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Five Minutes of South Africa

I'm sitting in my car at the scruffy petrol station on the corner by the squatter camp, on my way back from dropping the kids at school. The courteous pump attendant is filling the car, washing the windscreen and checking the oil. My mind drifts after my eyes. Various groups of men and women wait patiently and good-humouredly at the roadside, standing waiting for a taxi or a bakkie to pick them up for work, for a lift to town. It seems to me to epitomise the slower pace of life, Africa time, where you can't be in a hurry, because who knows whether you'll have to wait an hour for a lift or a minute. Patience is a survival necessity, patience and acceptance. A good lesson for me, as I always seem to be in a hurry, always two minutes behind time on the school run, too time conscious altogether.

I look above the heads of the people and through a gap in the trees to see a cloudy sky with the sun piercing through to pick out the rocky face of Table Mountain in the distance, its benevolent eternal steady energy embracing us from afar.

Three people stroll into view, two men and a woman. It looks like they're on their way to work in the bottle store, which is still locked up. The tallest man is wearing a black beanie, black top and jeans, on his back he carries a bright pink rucksack, Barbie ingenuously beaming her candyfloss smile to the world. I smiled in return, trying to imagine a big man anywhere else in the world unselfconsciously going to work with Barbie hitching a ride.

The pump attendant takes my card and smilingly says that they're going to have to open a car wash here. I look down at my clay-encrusted car and give the usual answer that there's no point, as we live down three kilometres of dirt road and it'll be just as dirty again by the time I get home. I realise that some of the patience of the people and steadfastness of the mountain has communicated itself to me, at least for the time I've been waiting as he strolls unhurriedly to process my card. I've been reflecting instead of fretting at the delay and taking away a few bright images as souvenirs.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Malva Pudding Recipe

Malva Pudding with Apricot Jam and Gazanias

Some of you gave such a rapturous reception to the crustless milk tart recipe that I thought I'd try out another of my sister-in-law's recipes for this typical South African pudding as a contribution to Johanna's hosting of Sugar High Friday. The theme is local sweet specialities.

As an English girl transplanted to South Africa I've done a fair bit of transplanting and dissemination of some of my native recipes but have also adopted plenty of local specialities, in particular buttermilk rusks which I try to have always on hand in case of emergencies ... like a cup of tea needing something to dunk in it. Recently I've been expanding my culinary repertoire and trying out a few more classic South African dishes from my sister-in-law's generous recipe book - I might not have managed to get my tongue around Afrikaans in the five years we've been here, but I'm enjoying learning a new dialect of baking.

Almost every restaurant in Cape Town has Malva Pudding on its dessert menu. It is one of those ubiquitous dishes that one has to side-step diplomatically, as a tour manager organising menus for a week of dinners for clients on walking holidays. If you're not careful you could end up with a gastronomic tour of Cape Town's Malva Puddings! That's not to say that it is not a good choice. It is rich, delicious and indulgent and has to be tasted at least once on a gourmet tour of Cape Town. Along with many other traditional South African dishes it gives a nod to the Netherlands for its origins. Essentially a rather homely baked cakey pudding, its restaurant version soaks itself in a rich, creamy sauce to take on a mantle of decadence, while elegant versions serve themselves up with a few poached apricots alongside too.

No-one seems to know where the name Malva pudding came from - suggestions range from a traditional accompaniment of Malvasia wine, a heavy dessert wine, to a woman named Malva creating it back in the mists of time. In my quest for enlightenment I stumbled upon this fellow searcher, who tells it all so well and though far more persistent and enterprising in her research got no further than I did.

I tried out my sister-in-law's recipe to make a dessert to follow our Sunday lunch of roast chicken and roast potatoes. Hers is a home version rather than restaurant one and gives details for the cake without drenching it in the creamy sauce. It produces a comforting cross-between steamed pudding and cake, with a tantalising hint of the apricot jam that flavours it and a pleasing, almost caramelly overtone. It is served warm with custard and cream alongside and is reminiscent of the best sort of English comfort food, perfect for a family winter lunch. Leaving out the stage of drenching it with the sauce makes it a lot less rich and calorific, but does mean that you can eat a lot more of it! If I were making it to impress and indulge guests I would probably choose the rich version with the sauce, so I'll give that to you as well.

Malva Pudding Recipe
Serves 6-8

1 heaped tablespoon butter
3 heaped tablespoons apricot jam
1 egg
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ cup sugar
½ cup milk

Cream together the butter and sugar. Add the beaten egg and jam and beat together. Add the dry ingredients and milk alternately and stir into the mixture. Pour the batter into a greased round dish approx 21cm / 8 inches. Cover either with a lid or tinfoil and bake at 180C / 375F for 30 minutes until the top is browned and a skewer comes out clean. Serve warm with custard and cream.

If you would like to try the rich and more traditional version of Malva Pudding, and I think it should be done once in a while, here is a recipe for the sauce to drench it in as soon as it leaves the oven.

1 cup cream
4oz / 100g butter
½ cup sugar
60 ml hot water.

Warm together the ingredients until the butter has melted and the sugar dissolved and pour over the pudding as it comes out of the oven. You can prick holes in the top to help the sauce soak in.

With the sauce incorporated into the Malva pudding you hardly need anything else to accompany it, the cream being already inside! Just for appearances sake though you might like to serve it with a conservative dollop of vanilla ice cream, or a few poached apricots and a drizzle of cream. The other compromise is to reserve some of the sauce to serve alongside the pudding rather than letting the whole amount soak in.

Several recipes that I found while researching the origins of malva pudding used a lot less apricot jam than this one, but I liked the amount of flavour that it gave, still subtle but definitely apricot. I used our home made apricot jam, which is just about lasting out the year until the next apricot season. I like that it connects the pudding to the things that are plentiful in this land, apricots loading the trees in November and positively demanding that you make jam with them to conserve this abundance for the rest of the year.

Sunday, August 19, 2007


My nine-year old son is growing so fast, but is still so touching in his vulnerability. He read through the first Harry Potter with gusto, a couple of months ago, comparing the film unfavourably with the book and indignant that several of the quidditch matches had been left out of the film. He launched confidently into the second book only to be brought up short by the scary bits - the malevolent voice that only Harry could hear, echoing sibilantly around the school corridors.

Very maturely he decided not to read any more until he was older, as he suffers too often from nightmares, which in the past have been caused by Bruce the Shark in Finding Nemo, the wolves in a storybook and wolves and darkness in general. Today, two months later, he decided he was now old enough to have another go at Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. Immersed in the book for the afternoon until the bitter end, he suffered no ill effects, but just now he emerged silently from the bedroom and dragged his father back with him to sit by his bedside and ward off those scary thoughts.

This is the same boy who has just endured a dentist visit with stoicism, having had casts taken of his teeth and adjusted to wearing a plate to straighten his skewed front tooth. He confidently played his recorder in a duet in the school concert yesterday and took part in his class performance of an Irish dance, 'even though the side skip was a bit embarrassing'.

Inspired by his The Science and History Project Book he has also decided to form a club, with badges and everything. The criteria for becoming a member is that you have to be nine, so he is currently the only member, but is preparing for two years' time when his next sister and Ryan, our farm worker's son, will be nine and can join. After his dentist's appointment he asked to go to the wool shop and he spent some of his pocket money on enough felt to make a cowboy hat from a pattern in the book. With his aunt's help to make the pattern and cut out the felt, he has already diligently started to sew the first hat. He is planning on making four, one for each of the future club members, even though Youngest won't be nine for another four years. They will have letters sewn on to the crown with the club name.

In the half hour it has taken to write this I can still hear voices from the children's bedroom, as my husband tries to read him something light and fluffy enough to dispel the dark images that have taken root in his imagination. It clutches at my heart to see him wrestling with those demons, his sensitive and fertile brain that just can't shrug off the disturbing things that other kids seem to process with equanimity.

Every dark scene in Disney's library has been a challenge, faced with finger on the fast forward button, bit by bit looked at, as with repetition the scariness is dulled and the whole movie can be watched uncensored. It took two years for The Little Mermaid to be watched in its entirety, those dark scenes with Ursula the octopus Sea Witch needing closed eyes even while fast forwarding, and it is my son, the oldest, who is the barometer of fright factor. If he can watch it then it'll be fine for the younger girls too. It's a rare scene that has one of them asking to fast forward before he does.

There is little that I can do to help him with this part of his life challenge. I can, and do, censor television viewing (for some reason Animal Planet and all the violence and rawness of the animal kingdom bother him not a bit), I can reassure that the dark outside is friendly and that we're safe and cosy inside, that he has an angel looking out for him, but I can't protect him from his own thoughts, that is his own hard road to travel.

For sure though, the rest of the Harry Potters, with their soul-sucking Dementors, will stay on a high shelf for the next few years.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Horror's Story Part 2

Two Storey Siesta

This is our eleven year old cat Horry. I last wrote about her, when we thought she had only a couple of weeks left to live. We'd taken her to the vet, when she started losing her balance and dragging her back legs. He did some tests, ruled out diabetes and thought it was probably a tumour, which would be expensive to diagnose conclusively and more than likely incurable. So we brought her home to live out her days in peace. She couldn't jump any more but would claw her way onto a lap if we didn't pick her up when requested and her purr was louder than ever. She spent a lot of time lying outside come rain or shine, was feisty as ever and relieved herself in the shower at night!

Five months later, she is still very much here, still purring and choosing this sunny spot to siesta. She seems slightly better, though still very wobbly and not able to jump successfully. The shower has been used as a litter tray less frequently recently too. Yes we did try putting an actual litter tray in there for her. She chose to poo in the shower and sleep in the litter tray, so we abandoned the idea... it was rather gritty underfoot!

Youngest has adopted her of late. Horry, in her less agile state, is far less aloof than she used to be in her prime and consents to being carried around and tucked up in boxes. We were sitting at supper a couple of days ago and youngest got down in the middle of the meal, without a word, to return a few minutes later. I asked where she'd been.

"To let Horror out"

"Out of where?" I enquired in slight apprehension.

"Out of the box."

A short lecture ensued on not shutting animals up in boxes that they couldn't get out on by themselves, though I did remember to praise her for remembering to let her out again. I went to check on Horry and gently lifted her out of her encarceration in the wooden-lidded tuck box. She promptly struggled straight back in. Why wouldn't she? She was cosily ensconced on Youngest's pillow in a nice warm, secure place, if the lid was down, that just made it cosier!

Youngest does everything she can to entice her onto her bed at night. In keeping with her contrary cat nature, Horry prefers to curl up on middle daughter's pillow, where she is not at all welcome. After being thrown off without ceremony, she'll settle in the box of clothes at the end of her bed until, in the night, she can creep back on and tuck in next to her legs. It must be her obstinate nature that has kept her going this long despite the vet's pessimistic prognosis.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Spring Decorating

It's time to brighten up my blog with a little colour today, in honour of the spring. Never mind that a cold front is bringing in more rain today and snow is forecast on the mountains for Wednesday - yesterday it was definitely spring.

After cooking Sunday lunch for family and friends, I drifted around outside in the sunshine and light breeze, photographing the new spring flowers. I've got some lovely, soft, flower images for A Flower Gallery, which I'll put up once I've played with them a bit, but here is one especially for my blog, showing the delicate pastel colours of the pypie, a wild South African gladioli, with our straw bale house in the background.


Another splash of colour comes from Planet Nomad, as edj kindly passed me on one of these:

I know that some of you have got them already, and some of you are on holiday frolicking in the mountains or on beaches but I'd like to pass one on anyway to
Jenny at Prairie Farmeress, Charlotte at Charlottes Web, Jeanne at Cooksister and Meredith at Poppy Fields who all rock!

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Spring Chorus

A showery day sprinkled with signs of spring, rainbow arching protectively over us as we walk around the farm exclaiming over the latest flower arrivals. The almond blossom burst out last week and now the tall pypies, South African wild gladioli, are coming out to join the chorus, mauve, purple and magenta flags among the restios. The first babjantjies were spotted just now by my sharp-eyed middle daughter, their deep blue trumpets hugging close to the ground, heavy with the scent of massage oils. Watsonias of all shades of flame are beginning to flower and my sister in law's coral tree has its scarlet blooms lighting it up for the first year ever. The proteas have been out for the last few weeks and are now prolific enough to cut and bring into the house in their fiery shades of orange and pastel pinks.

Our walk was punctuated every few yards by exclamations and summons to the others to come and look - the girls of the family on spring flower alert - my two sisters-in-law, my two daughters and me, voices carrying in the still air between showers, breathing in the damp air full of growing smells, then hurrying to take cover at the nearest house as the next shower hits us. Returning home with a pocket full of pine cones to use as fire lighters, a posy of the more profuse of the flowers and damp feet and knees from bending down to smell the flowers. It's spring time in South Africa!

Friday, August 10, 2007

Flower Pictures

I've been taking a trip down memory lane, re-sizing all my flower pictures for our stock photography library at A Flower Gallery. Long long ago before the children were born, in the days when we still used film in our cameras, I spent a while photographing flowers in our studio, setting up shots with lighting and backgrounds, processing the transparency and having the best ones printed onto canvas. This brief flurry of creativity is now immortalised in the image galleries of A Flower Gallery and a few framed pictures adorn the walls of family and friends. I made a few sporadic attempts to get back into it after the children were born, using daylight, but small children and concentrated creative endeavour don't go well together and my flower photographer hat got put away on the shelf to gather dust.

My digital camera has liberated the creativity again recently, but set up studio shots still elude me. I take a more immediate gratification, instant capture approach and, with digital not costing a thing, can experiment more. I still feel an affection for my cornflower shot above though, product of days when a couple of hours playing around with a single shot was not only possible, it was called work!

Tuesday, August 07, 2007


My husband's birthday dinner was ten days ago now and I still haven't posted about it. I was sure that such a ground-breaking event as my cooking a three course dinner for adults only, would have leapt to my blog, with hardly a pause for thought. Sadly it seems that the creative effort of the cooking left me dry of words and the food blogger in me abandoned ship, when I realised that we'd eaten all the food without me having taken a single photo of it. I hurriedly snapped one leftover tart after the meal before my husband and his friend in clear-up mode finished it off, but with no daylight and only on-camera flash the result was unworthy of its delicious subject.

I'd been mulling over the menu for a week or two, with no real progress, except to establish that the main course was to be Thai Green Curry. I wanted to celebrate this child-free meal by cooking things that they don't like, which are hardly ever cooked in this one-meal-fits-all family. So a bit of spice for the main course. The dessert sprang into mind as I remembered the naartjie sorbets served in their skins, that I'd made a few months ago. I'd thought at the time that they needed an intense chocolate sensation to follow, so the search was on for a suitable recipe. Who else but Nigella would I turn to for this? In Feast I found what I was looking for - her Chocolate Espresso cake. That left a suitably elegant starter to think of. In the freezer I had one roll of the wonderful organic puff pastry that a friend brought, so that was to be a base - my tastebuds played with ideas and came up with a layer of the vegetarian tapenade from Kloovenberg with baby tomatoes halved and a scattering of basil. Menu sorted in the nick of time.

I made the naartjie sorbets two days ahead to get them out of the way, sticky business as it always seems to be. The chocolate cake I set to the evening before, never having made this sort of cake before. It's one where you melt the butter and chocolate together, whisk the eggs with the sugar and fold in the melted mixture, instant coffee and flour. Nigella's recipe asked for the best chocolate and instant espresso powder, mine was going to be a plebs version using dark chocolate of the sort that doesn't declare its cocoa solid percentage and Nescafe. Slight qualms furrowed my brow as I mixed it all together into a suspiciously pale batter. The batter tasted OK but how could it possibly transform into the dark delight shown in the sumptuous illustration of Feast? Had I ruined it with cheap-skate ingredients? Relief when I took it out of the oven an hour later, beautifully risen and dark as night, with an appetising aroma that promised riches. It sank as it cooled to form a dense chocolatey mass, just right to offset the citrus of the sorbet.

We'd invited two families to the dinner and to sleep over with their children - out where we are it would be callous to send people all the way back to Cape Town after regaling them with dinner - so I'd delegated the children's supper to one family and breakfast the next day to the others, leaving me just the dinner to do. With the dessert sorted in advance, I prepared the thai curry in the morning, whizzing up the paste from scratch from Nigel Slater's recipe, just to make myself feel good. It did feel good with all those unaccustomed herby, spicy scents wafting around the kitchen, like being on a culinary holiday. With the pastry defrosting to be assembled at the last moment, there was nothing left to do for the rest of the afternoon, except make tea and chat . I'd over-organised myself - felt I should be rushing around cooking as my raison d'etre, but I'd left nothing to do but force myself to relax, the hardest thing of all!

The children were fed and allowed to watch a DVD while we had our starter, then dispatched to bed. The boys had pulled all their mattresses upstairs for their own sleepover and our friend's daughter took over our son's bed to create a girls' sleepover downstairs. We closed the door and concentrated on grown-up conversation.

The pastry starters turned out brilliantly, crisp flaky pastry, salty tang of olive, sweet burst of roast tomatoes and green freshness of basil. The curry was also good, the men attacked the leftover curry paste to add more kick to theirs, even though more delicate palates found it just right! Dessert was the triumph - I had been going to serve the sorbet first, closely followed by the chocolate cake, but by unanimous request we combined the two on one plate, alternating mouthfuls and groaning with pleasure at the intense flavours.

As silence fell at the end of the meal, we became aware that other voices were still chattering. Upstairs two of the boys,, with heavy eyelids were still running through their repertoire of jokes and downstairs youngest was still awake chatting to herself, though the other two girls were fast asleep.

Adult stamina swiftly ebbed away after that and by 10.30 people were departing to bed, though with the promise of more talking and feasting at breakfast the next day.

This could become an annual event and I might even be tempted to repeat the menu verbatim.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

South African Milk Tart Recipe

South African Crustless Milk Tart

A couple of days ago, on a winter afternoon, with an over-supply of milk from the weekend about to hit its sell by date, I suddenly had a yen for a nice, creamy rice pudding. The sort that you can throw into the oven and come back to a couple of hours later for a dose of starchy, stomach-warming, central heating.

Long, long ago as students revising for our finals, this was our standby. One of us would assemble the ingredients and chuck it into the oven. Our shabby, student house would be pervaded by the aroma right to the top floor, where I resided in the attic bedroom, lulling us with the promise of a break from our literary tomes. Rice pudding and regular doses of Neighbours were our tranquillisers in those days.

When I tried to recall how we'd made it though, the details escaped me. I know that in England we used a variety of rice that came labeled as pudding rice. A round, short-grained rice that I haven't seen here, and I didn't feel like squandering my precious arborio rice, (which is the nearest equivalent) on a mere pudding. Neither was I sure that my kids would feel the same nostalgic enthusiasm for rice pudding, never having been exposed to it before! One day I will make it for them, I promise, to remind them of their English heritage, but this time I decided to go for the South African spiritual counterpart of rice pudding - Milk Tart.

Milk Tart or Melktert is one of those classic South African dishes, that show up in infinite shades of cream at every social event, where people bring a sweet contribution. At school fund-raisers and tea and cake sales you will find several different versions interspersed with the odd tipsy tart, vetkoek, koeksisters or crunchies for variety.

A pastry case filled with a pale custard filling and speckled with cinnamon, it has a dense creamy texture that is sweet but not sickly, the comfort factor of creamy rice pudding without the bulk. Even my children, who don't go for rich, creamy things, like it and it's a great way of using up that extra pint of milk that is about to go past its sell by date and at the same time getting the kids to up their dairy and calcium intake, without overdosing on cream and fat. It uses half-fat milk not cream so is also a good choice for those who have to avoid cream but are missing the indulgence of it.

The joy of this particular recipe for a Crustless Milk Tart is that it by-passes the need for pastry, the filling going straight into a buttered pie dish and into the oven, so it can be assembled in five minutes, baked for 45 minutes and produce a tea time treat with almost no effort. Also all the ingredients are mixed up in one bowl, or the food processor, leaving very little washing up. I've seen many other traditional recipes that demand that you whisk egg yolks and whites separately then fold in, but this way is already so delicious that there seems to be no need, unless you are looking for entertainment! This version is perfect for afternoons when you have a thousand other things to do and unexpected visitors show up for tea, or when you just feel the need for comfort food on a cold winter's afternoon.

Crustless Milk Tart Recipe

¾ cup / 185ml self-raising flour
2 cups / 500ml milk
2 eggs
¾ cup / 185 ml sugar
1 tsp vanilla essence
1 oz / 25g melted butter
pinch salt
½ tsp cinnamon

Put all the ingredients together into a bowl or food processor and beat to a smooth batter. Pour into a buttered pie dish (approximately 23cm/9" in diameter, but it doesn't matter if it's not exact, the finished tart will just be either a bit deeper or shallower). Sprinkle the cinnamon over the top. Bake for 45 minutes at 175C / 350F. Serve warm or cold. It sinks and becomes denser as it cools. If you eat it hot you'll need a spoon to scoop up the soft custardy tart but cold you can pick up the slices in your hand, if it hasn't vanished long before then.

Happily the milk tart was a tremendous success - this was the first time I'd made it myself from my sister-in-law's recipe. All three children guzzled as much as they were allowed, I sneaked an extra piece too and felt almost the same level of carbohydrate comfort that our student rice puddings provided. The only thing missing was that crusty spicy skin that you either fight over or loathe. If anyone has a foolproof, effortless rice pudding recipe for me, I would love to subject my children to it one day soon!

OK, so they don't really look in need of a winter warmer, but they are working very hard!

P.S. In case those of you with wet summers are about to lynch me for this sunny winter picture, it is actually raining again today and we'd just had five whole days of rain before the sun shone and liberated my laundry from the ever expanding heap in the bathroom.

Edited to add: I thought I would submit this to Johanna's Sugar High Friday event - the theme is 'sweet specialities' and I'm taking it upon myself to see that South Africa's puddings are adequately represented, so this Milk Tart and this Malva Pudding will fly the flag for SA along with Jeanne's Peppermint Crisp Fridge Tart.