I only eat ice-cream the Heston way…

Heston Blumenthal is famous for snail porridge. He’s famous for meat fruits. But he’s probably most famous for egg and bacon icecream. He even made it on this season of Australia’s MasterChef. And the way he makes the icecream, by churning it with liquid nitrogen and basically snap freezing it, featured as a key technique in one of the MasterChef elimination challenges (ba-bye Noelene).

Two Fridays ago I went to N2 Extreme Gelato, a new gelataria on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy which uses the liquid nitrogen technique to make its icecream. I was excited to go (hell, it’s icecream after all) but spurious that it would be any better than normal icecream. N2 is a funky little astro-turfed shop which was full of people despite it being a cold winter night in Melbourne. A blackboard displays the flavours of the week. I was with three other people and between us we tried Black Lava Salted Caramel (my choice), Crème Brulee (by far the most popular order amongst the crowd), Sour Cream Chocolate and, wait for it, Blue Cheese!

A really chatty woman took our order and then you wait around to the right of the counter where you can watch the “gelartists” make the icecream by getting a beaker of flavoured custard from the right churner, tipping it into the bowl of a professional series MixMaster and then adding a smidge of liquid nitrogen. The result is that a huge amount of white vapour pours out of the top of the Mixmaster bowls, like something out of a Harry Potter film. It looks pretty awesome! It definitely gets you excited to get your hands on a tub of it. The wait is not too bad. We waited maybe 5 minutes for our first order. They mixed up the Blue Cheese order and tried to give us Spam and Mustard instead. When we pointed out our order was wrong, it was quickly addressed without complaint and we had all four flavours within about 10 to 15 minutes. There’s an area in the back with packing crates and atsro-turf where you can sit or stand and eat.

Tubs are $6 each. They only do one flavour per tub, so there is only one price option. Flavours change regularly and are posted on their website and Instagram. While the flavour list is relatively small (about ten including limited edition flavours), it feels like a fair bit of work has gone into perfecting each flavour. All four flavours we had were really well done. I even ate a bit of the blue cheese one, despite my dislike for anything blue and/or mouldy! It was pretty subtle, not really my thing, but definitely edible. The crème brulee was awesome, complete with blow torched caramelised top. And my black salted caramel was delicious, sweet, very caramelly and had just enough black lava salt sprinkled on top. Above all, it was the texture of the ice-cream that really stood out and makes me keen for a return trip to N2. It is so soft! Ice-cream is soft, I know that, but this is a whole new level of softness. It is like soft serve but with the intensity of flavour and richness of real ice-cream.

N2 also has a counterpart in Sydney, where the business started. My guess is that N2 will be expanding into a chain in the not too distant future. While this is “hot” (or very cold!) right now, I think it is a fad that is likely to last, since the product is actually superior, rather than just being fashionable. It’s not a must-do, but for gelato aficionados, this is a new and quite big step forward in production methods in Australia that is well worth a try…or two.

"Gelartists" at work

“Gelartists” at work

N2 Extreme Gelato on Urbanspoon

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Cheat’s caramel

I know I’m behind on this one, I know Kylie did it on MasterChef two seasons ago, but I’ve finally got on board with the cheat’s way to make dolce de leche. It is so simple:

  1. Buy a can of sweetened condensed milk.
  2. Put the whole, unopened can in water in a saucepan.
  3. Boil for 2.5 hours with the saucepan lid on, topping up the water as needed.
  4. Cool in the can, open and enjoy.
  5. Try not to eat the whole can yourself.

I was dubious. I love sweetened condensed milk, so I was pretty sure the result would be yummy, but I doubted it would taste like dolce de leche. But it does! It really does!

So, using the dolce I made this dessert for a little dinner party I had a few weeks back. I’m rather proud of it. It was quite a big dessert but everyone finished theirs (me with a breather about two thirds of the way in!).

My chocolate brownie and dolce de leche dessert plate

My chocolate brownie and dolce de leche dessert plate

Basically it starts with a smear of the dolce mixed with some salt and extra cream to make it thinner. On top of that are chocolate brownie pieces, toasted almonds, dried figs, brandy snaps, more dollops of the dolce and some scoops of chai-spiced ice-cream. Yeah baby!

I was inspired by this dessert, which I had about a month ago, at Cumulus Inc.

Dessert at Cumulus Inc

Dessert at Cumulus Inc

You can’t really see it in the picture, but there were big blobs of dolce de leche under and around the brownie pieces. One thing I couldn’t replicate though, which I’d love to, is the aerated chocolate. It was like a high end Aero bar crumbled over the dessert. So good – it both popped and melted in your mouth!

Anyway, as for the dolce de leche, it’s so easy, just give
it a go…but not when you’re planning on a health kick!

Chai Hard

I’ve already written on how much I love Di Bella in North Melbourne. But there is another, important reason why I’m a devotee – the chai latte. Big call here, but I think it is the best in Melbourne. Below is my humble appraisal of the chais of North Melbourne, no apologies by my biased views and frothy writing (pun intended).

Di Bella

Great froth for a start, sometimes bordering on a little too much froth to milk ratio. Quite sweet – you definitely don’t need to add sugar or honey – and a perfect balance in the spice mix. I’ve had some that are way too gingery and then quite a lot which just taste like cinnamon in sweet milk. This tastes spicy, but the spice is a coherent flavour rather than a mix of identifiable and overpowering flavours. Damn, I sound like a wanker don’t I? I don’t drink coffee though, so I have to get precious and pretentious about something. It was actually my sister who introduced chai lattes to me, I only started drinking them about a year ago. She ordered one at Di Bella and it smelt so good when it arrived that I asked for a sip. A sip became my own cup and then an at least bi-weekly chai stop at Di Bella. It might be that since Di Bella was my very first chai latte I have a biased fondness for it (it’s like a first love), but I’m pretty confident this is the cream (non fat, soy or otherwise) of the crop.

Grigons & Orr Corner Store

This comes in a cute teapot replete with knitted cosy. It’s not just a chai tea though, as I’d feared. It is milky and latte-y to a point, but there’s a distinct lack of froth. The flavour’s good, a fairly strong chai taste, but a bit bitter for me, too much like black tea. I added about three teaspoons of sugar to mine and I probably won’t order it again. The corn fritters at Grigons, on the other hand, are a-ma-zing! I would seriously like to take a bath in their homemade hollandaise sauce.

Auction Rooms

Auction Rooms, I love you, but really, your chai just doesn’t do it for me. It’s trying (or should I say chai-ing?) to be cooler than it should be. Chai should not be minimalist.  For Auction Rooms the coffee is the money-maker. I’m pretty sure they could serve dog food for breakfast and the line for coffee would still be out the door and past Fandangos. The super rich hot chocolate with or without milk looks pretty good though. I keep meaning to try it but I’m always so full at the end of brunch!

Little Wish

So, technically not in North Melbourne, this little café is tucked away in the CBD on Little Collins street. I love their salted caramel slices. I used to work really close to Little Wish and a caramel slice from there was my hump-day afternoon treat to get me through…until I went again on Thursday and possibly Friday. They are so addictive. A beautiful buttery base, great gooey salty caramel, decent quality chocolate on top that’s not super hard and then a sprinkling of nuts and salt on the top. Crunch crunch nom nom.

But the chai, sadly, failed to impress. I wouldn’t write it off for others, but for me it was just way too gingery. It was just like hot milk and ginger powder. I wasn’t sure if I was drinking a chai or a curry. However, if you love ginger and you added a good whack of sugar, this might be a chai for you. The froth, I have to admit, was up to scratch.

The French Quarter

Good, possibly very good and probably my favourite in North Melbourne after Di Bella. The flavour is warm and nutty and the froth is good. My only complaint is it tends to be a bit milky tasting, the chai flavour could be stronger. I love this chai with one of their chocolate brownies. So rich but so delicious. Because of the milkiness of the chai it’s kind of like you’re a kid again having a chocolate brownie and a cup of warm milk before bed.

At home: Tetley Chai Latte Powder Classic

I think I bought this powdered stuff after a particularly shitty day at work. Somewhere in my tired brain I decided that buying chai powder and making my own chais both at home and at the office would be a good idea. I could save money! I could have a chai whenever I wanted, even if I was stuck and work or it was after hours. This would solve everything, I told myself, maybe even world peace.

Three months on and most of the little sachets are still sitting in the box in my pantry. It’s not terrible, it’s just not that good. For starters, it creates its own froth, which freaks me out. I mean, what do they put in there that means that when you add hot water to the powder it froths up like some chemical experiment from year nine? Second, the sachets seem to be made with jumbo mugs or mega US-style beakers in mind. For a normal 250ml of milk or water, I think there is enough chai powder in one sachet for two cups. Otherwise, I discovered, it’s quite overpowering and bitter. Finally, and maybe most fatally, I detected a faint fatty feel in my mouth after drinking it, a nasty kind of hydrogenated fat residue that just really closed the door for me on commercial chai powders. I did discover, however, that some of the chai powder in cupcake mix with a bit of ground cinnamon made really yummy chai cupcakes, so all was not lost with this purchase.

Double Brunch

Di Bella' s five grain porridge

Di Bella’ s five grain porridge

This last weekend was a double brunch weekend, by which I mean I did brunch both Saturday and Sunday mornings. Normally Sunday brunch is a bit of a ritual for me and my sister. I meet her for a yoga class at 11am and then we go to brunch together, with my partner or some friends often joining us for the brunch part.

This weekend past though was, as I said, a double whammy. On Saturday I ate brunch at Auction Rooms (25 minute wait, but we waited inside and it was worth it) and on Sunday I ate brunch at Di Bella (no wait, we were there around 9:30am).

At both places I played it pretty safe and ordered dishes which are amongst my favourites. I don’t think there’s any shame in that. I’m not a morning person, so I don’t want too much of a sensory overload/surprise before lunch. I like well cooked eggs, I like really soft poached fruit and I like dishes which I know are going to make me happy. I’ll be adventurous at dinner, but at breakfast, if I know it’s great I’ll order it 9 times out of 10.

At Auction Rooms this familiar favourite was their ‘Shady Deal’ – two poached eggs with a zingy tomato sauce, soft fetta, lots of onion and olives. The star of the dish though is the two little bundles of super soft flatbread you get with the dish. I like to save a few pieces of bread for the end and really wipe the inside of the bowl clean with them – it is wicked, delicious, slightly childish fun that gets me smiling on the greyest of mornings. My one, ongoing disappointment with Auction Rooms (besides the wait for a table) is the lack of scrambled eggs. I’ve asked, they just don’t do them.

I respect that. But I love eggs for breakfast and I have a weird visceral aversion to runny eggs. I know! I know! Self respecting foodies like their poached eggs oozy, but I just can’t handle the half raw smell of the egg or the gloopy body-fluid like texture, particularly before lunchtime. I recently tried to eat a raw duck egg (amazing birthday dinner at Vue de Monde) and realised that part of my aversion might be that egg yolks kind of smell like the animal they came from. Growing up in Gippsland we had numerous clutches of duckling hatch and grow up on our property. Ducklings are absolutely adorable, but they do have a distinctive feathery, poo-ey, grainy sort of smell. A smell which is echoed in their egg yolks and a smell which, for me, renders them inedible.

Anyway, the point of that ramble is that I can’t handle runny eggs so normally order scrambled eggs. But, in something of a coup, I’ve now discovered that Auction Rooms will happily and fairly reliably cook the crap out of your poached eggs if you ask them to do it. I am probably making one of Auction Rooms’ chefs weep, but if it means I can order their Shady Deal, weep away I say.

Brunch on Sunday was pretty early for me. I like to be under a doona at that time, especially on the weekends. Another thing with eggs is that I really can’t handle eggs, in any form, before about 11am. I have a lot of rules about eggs, don’t I? This meant that on Sunday the egg dishes at Di Bella were out. They do great scrambled eggs at Di Bella, with some very good sides, but, it being 9:30am, I ordered the 5 grain porridge with cranberries, pistachio and rhubarb. It comes out in a big white bowl with a little jug of milk on the side. The porridge is creamy but not smooth – you can see and feel those five grains. Five grain porridge seems to be a very popular menu item, I’ve seen it on Auction Rooms’ menu and well as a few places in Fitzroy and the CBD. The rhubarb on top is a little on the firm side for me but it’s been cooked in some sort of delicious spice and tea spiked syrup, so I’m more than willing to overlook the fact that I like my rhubarb almost falling apart. At first I wasn’t sure about the caramelised little chunks of pistachio and sugar, but after having the dish a few times I’m really getting into them. I’m a sweet tooth after all. My only complaint is that the little jug of milk isn’t quite sufficient for the porridge, meaning the cereal to milk ratio is out. On the couple of occasions I’ve bothered to ask for extra milk though, the staff were very happy to do so.

The other great thing about both places – Di Bella and Auction Rooms – is that they have a lovely selection of cakes for a naughty mid-afternoon snack. I often opt to takeaway something at the end of the meal and  then eat it around 4 o’clock. Between that and the big brunch I’m set until a lateish dinner at around 8pm. At Auction Rooms the muffins are king. They had still-warm mixed berry chocolate and oat ones on display on Saturday . At Di Bella I can recommend the almond croissants, the caramel slice and anything of the cakey-berry-crumble variety which they tend to produce. I’m not convinced by their chocolate brownies though. They are passable but a little dry and lack that really deep dark chocolatelyness which I sometimes just need. Oh and the muffins at Di Bella are pretty good too, especially if they involve white chocolate and raspberries.

Di Bella Coffee Roasting Warehouse on Urbanspoon

Auction Rooms on Urbanspoon

Yogini and zucchini

This blog is mostly about hunting down the best in and around North Melbourne. Given my sweet tooth, that will include a rather generous number of blogs on baked goods. I’m also a baker and since my friends often come round to our place for baked goodies, I think a blog on my own baking is justified. Not that I need to justify my blogs I guess… you’ll just read ‘em or leave ‘em!

My choc-hazelnut cupcakes

My choc-hazelnut cupcakes

For me, baking is sort of like yoga. I like to think I’m a better baker than I am yogini though. For the hour while I’m making a sponge cake or the ten minutes while I’m placing sugar decorations on the top of a batch of cupcakes, I’m thinking about nothing beyond how much air I’ve got into my eggs or how pink is too pink for icing. I feel calm. I don’t worry about clients, life plans, filing, finances, my family, my partner, global warming, whether my house is clean, my daily calorie count, health insurance, friends’ breakups, saving the whales, restaurant reviews, whether I should floss my teeth or any of the other gazillion things I worry about.

The other thing I love about baking is that it’s something I can do late into the night. My normal brain only works a limited number of hours, but my baking brain is different. I happily bake at 1am in the morning. It’s quiet then, there is a certain baking zen which can be achieved when all the other houses are dark and it’s just you and a bowl of ganache in the middle of the night.

I don’t do early morning baking though, so I could never be a professional baker. Last year I tried to bake one of my staples, a classic four berry pavlova, at 6am. Normally I could do it with my eyes closed (baking blind – ha ha get it?), but I didn’t beat the castor sugar in sufficiently and then I had the temperature down too low. I ended up with a sort of soggy, brown pile of marshmallow. This dessert failure meant I had to whip up a very quick batch of crème brulees with the egg yolks I had left over from making the pav. It all worked out fine in the end, but the brulees were definitely below my normal standards and they weren’t nearly as visually spectacular as a glistening berry covered pav plonked down in the middle of a table. Anyway, that night dessert was had and Pav-gate was not mentioned again, but that episode definitely confirmed my earlier suspicion that much like scrambled eggs, hard work, loud music and overly chatty caffeine hyped colleagues, baking should be avoided before 11am.

My baking style

My lemon curd and raspberry mini cupcakes

My lemon curd and raspberry mini cupcakes

Even when my baking doesn’t turn out perfectly, it pretty much always tastes good, it’s just the presentation that takes a few goes to perfect. So if it isn’t perfect, it just means I eat it, rather than serving it up to friends. If I haven’t got time to make something else, then I serve it up to them anyway, calling it “rustic” or “home style”. If all else fails, I smother it in whipped cream to make it look better.

I like what I call “girly” baking – lots of pink icing, cachous, sugar roses, polka dot patty pans and heart shapes. I’m a massive sweet tooth, so it’s mostly sweet and decadent things which I bake. My family’s background is English, so that flavours my baking choices a lot. Scones, sponge cakes and classic puddings feature heavily. And of course, I am addicted to chocolate and all things chocolately.

Fifteen of my favourites

Fifteen baking related things I love more than puppies and rainbows combined:

  1. My Kitchenaid Mixmaster. I call it my “baby” and no-one else is allowed to use it.
  2.  Whipped cream – see above.
  3. Online shopping.
  4. Warm sticky date pudding – my dad still makes the best one I’ve ever tasted.
  5. Delia Smith – classic perfectionist and obsessed with process, she should have been a lawyer.
  6. Eating the wonky looking ones – we all do it.
  7. Nigella Lawson – she’s over the top on TV, but the woman can cook and she makes my midnight snacks look so innocent in comparison!
  8. My blowtorch – I’m also a bit of a pyromaniac, so it combines two passions.
  9. My nan’s passionfruit sponge –it was the first real baking lesson I ever had.
  10. My chocolate coloured apron with the big pockets in the front.
  11. The cast iron frying pan I lugged all the way back from a trip to the USA.
  12. Edible glitter – seriously, WTF?
  13. Pyjamas – the best bakewear.
  14. Licking the spoon – but NOT double dipping.
  15. Vanilla beans – because everything looks classier with vanilla bean through it, right?