Get in line, baby!

Wait free brunch - corn fritters at Garage Espresso in Balaclava

Wait free brunch – corn fritters at Garage Espresso in Balaclava

I have now, finally, emerged from my Easter sugar fuelled coma and am ready to get back to blogging. And as I emerged, eyes blinking from my choco-daze, I ran straight into a 300 people strong queue outside the newly opened H&M store at Melbourne GPO. This was well over a week after the opening and still the line was wrapped around the building and up Elizabeth street. On its opening day the store apparently had 15,000 people through the door. Barriers were erected to manage the lines, bouncers dotted the GPO’s steps and several news channels covered the opening.

I think I’m getting too old to queue. Personally I have no interest in queuing for H&M clothes that look just like Zara and Top Shop and everyone else. But I’m also losing interest in queuing at restaurants. A ten minute wait for a table to get my hashbrowns at Di Bella? Ok fine. Fifteen minutes for the staff to clear a spot at the bar at Gazi? Yeah, ok. But the two hour, stand in a long line at Mamasita or wait for a text from Chin Chin is wearing thin. Sometimes I feel like I’m waiting for the latest iPhone or Beiber concert tickets only the crowd looks a little less nerdy or fourteen respectively and all you get at the end is overpriced cabbage salad or deconstructed apple pie. I know restaurants want to be able to turn over tables quickly, I get that they want you to drink at their bar first. I understand why restaurants have a no-bookings policy, but I don’t have to like it.

(Relatively) wait free brunch at Bowery to Williamsburg

(Relatively) wait free brunch at Bowery to Williamsburg

Maybe it’s because we’re spoilt for choice in Melbourne that I feel resentful waiting for a table when so many other good seats are available elsewhere. Maybe it’s because I’m getting old and grumpy and don’t like standing in heels for too long. Perhaps it’s because, on my less student-like budget, I eat at nicer places and am therefore not willing to put up with the various looks of patronising sympathy or scathing dismissal you get from waitresses when you ask ‘how long for a table for two?’ on a Friday or Saturday night. I mean, seriously, they are a restaurant, seating and serving people is what they do! Sometimes I feel like Oliver Twist when he stands up and asks for more gruel. I mean, some staff look genuinely offended that you’d even ask, as if suggesting they might have a table free on a busy night is tantamount to crimes against humanity or, worse, a bad urbanspoon rating.

There’s actually queuing psychology and a lot of studies out there on how we react to queues. Humans still tend to follow the herd and, when faced with a choice of two places, one with little to no wait and one with a long queue they will often go with the long queue – choosing safety in numbers essentially. Plus there’s a sort of weird Melbourne pride in queuing for a ridiculous amount of time at a really popular place. Like some endurance athlete, you held out the two hours seventeen minutes that your friends didn’t. You’ve eaten somewhere they haven’t yet. You’re now one of the chosen, or something like that. Plus you can instagram the crap out of the long awaited meal, if you’re not too weak from hunger pains by the time it arrives, that is. And, don’t get me wrong, I’m guilty of this. I’ve done my time on Mamasita’s steps, I’ve stood outside the club-like Gelato Messina, shivered in a line outside Mamak and have, on occasion, waited an hour for brunch.

Bar seat and yummy Greek dips at Gazi

Bar seat and yummy Greek dips at Gazi

I guess the point is that I think queuing at restaurants is on the demise. At least, I’m hoping so. Touché Hombre has started taking bookings this year. Philippa Sibley has opened a restaurant, Prix Fixe, that you have to buy tickets to ahead of time. The availability and increase in online restaurant review sites and foodie blogs mean you no longer need a queue outside a place to know it’s good or to get a sense of hype. So, personally, I’ll be repenting my queuing sins and only going if I can secure a seat ahead of time…at least until Heston’s restaurant opens in Melbourne next year.

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Eating dessert first

First, important news on the North Melbourne café front: Di Bella has a new summer menu. This is partly the reason for my delay in blogging, I’ve been too busy enjoying the intermittent sunshine and eating my way through the new menu. Favourite newbies include the omelette with beetroot, goat’s chees, heirloom tomatoes and awesome super thin crouton-crips. Another standout is the peach toast. It’s basically like eating an elaborate peach cake for breakfast. And it’s very very pretty on the plate. It looks and tastes like the essence of summer.

Di Bella's peach toast

Di Bella’s peach toast

Eating dessert-like substances for breakfast brings me to the subject of today’s blog, which is ‘eating dessert first’. It’s one of those slogans you see printed on tea-towels and fridge magnets, you know, ‘Life is short: eat dessert first’ and then a silly cartoon of a glamorous woman from the fifties holding a huge cake. There’s many blogs and foodie newsletters based around this phrase, even T-shirts and other cutesy-giftware. But do people actually do it? On a regular basis I mean, like, as a way of life?

Being a massive sweet tooth, this concept does have some appeal for me. But being a cautious ex-lawyer type, I in fact normally eat my veggies first, safe in the knowledge that my second ‘dessert’ stomach (because there is such a thing I assure you) will find room for that chocolate éclair or blackberry crumble with vanilla bean ice-cream.

There’s even some nutritionists who’ve argued it’s not a bad idea to eat (a small amount of) dessert first, before your veggies. Apparently the fat in the dessert will help you absorb more nutrients out of the veggies and also help you feel fuller for longer. Not sure about that theory (wishful thinking?) but it’s an interesting thought…

So I don’t eat dessert first, but I do read dessert first. When I look at a menu, my eyes can’t help but to just slide across and down, towards the dessert section. If I know/think it’s likely that we’re having dessert, I’ll usually spend those first few minutes perusing the dessert list and making a selection, before going over to the savoury section. Once I’m safe in the knowledge that I’m having the cheesecake for dessert, I can exclude the four cheese pizza from my potential list of main meals (too much creaminess). If I’m going for the lemon tart, then I won’t have the lemon and asparagus angel hair pasta, because that would just be a bit samey, wouldn’t it? You get the idea. I prioritise the dessert choice. My partner and I also play a little game where, when looking at a menu in a new restaurant we haven’t been to before, we try to guess which dessert the other person is going to go for. It’s normally pretty easy though – since we’ve shared rather a lot of meals and we both have a kind of dessert kryptonite which gets us every time (me: anything chocolate, him: salted caramel or lemon tart).

Things get trickier for my selecting dessert first method when the dessert menu is separate to the rest of the menu. Quite a few places do this. I love The European on Spring Street, but they are an offender in this category. Some places use it like a ‘reveal’ at the end, hoping you’ll be so excited by the blood orange trifle on the suddenly proffered menu that you’ll overcome the food coma you’re slowly sinking into. Others keep them separate because their dessert menu is more like a specials list, with a small number of desserts that change regularly. I guess they are the experts and know their business. But for a dessert strategist like myself, it’s rather offputting to have no idea if it will be a brulee or baklava at the end of the meal. First world problem, I know!

We’re programmed to like the sweet stuff because it contains a whole lot of energy. Back when we were cave people, running around all day with a honey-filled bees nest or handful of ripe berries a rare occurrence, it made sense to eat dessert first. Now it’s customary to eat dessert last and sit down for most of the day. If we eat dessert first, are we undoing evolution? Or just giving into our natural tendencies?

Perhaps, with Christmas feasting coming up, it’s possible I might just start eating dessert first and last…

Omelette at Di Bella

Omelette at Di Bella

Di Bella Coffee Roasting Warehouse on Urbanspoon

(H)anna(h) Pavlova

First, apologies for the delay in posts. As some of you may know, my partner and I have just moved apartments. Don’t worry, while we officially live in West Melbourne rather than North Melbourne now, in reality we are literally three minutes’ walk from Errol Street. Di Bella is now in a direct line between me and my work, meaning I’m in there so often that several of the staff greet me by name. This is rather nice, but occasionally embarrassing.

My mango passionfruit pavlova ( a cheeky slice the day after...)

My mango passionfruit pavlova ( a cheeky slice the day after…)

Anyway, back to far more important things, namely pavlova. Pavlova is a crowd pleasing dessert. It’s nostalgic. It’s colourful and eye catching (depending on what it’s topped with). The flavours are familiar and popular. It involves copious amounts of whipped cream. It is named after a beautiful and talented Russian ballerina (Anna Pavlova). It’s even gluten free and vegetarian. Plus it seem light, meaning everyone feels able to fit in at least a little slither after dinner. To top it all off, I get to use my beloved Mixmaster to make it. My grandma makes a cracker of a pavlova, as do many other grannies nation-wide.

A few of you may have read one of my past blogs which mentioned my ‘pav-gate’ pavlova baking fail. The resulting light brown soggy mess was frankly devastating, particularly since I had previously considered pavlova a basic that was pretty foolproof. It took me a little while to regain my pav confidence. I convinced myself it had been the early morning bake time, but doubt still crept into my mind…

Happily, I can now say that I’m 100% back to my former levels of pav snobbishness. I can once again blithely whip these babies up for dinner party desserts and bring-a-plate BBQs. This weekend mangoes were down to $2 each at the Queen Vic Markets, so I snaffled up a couple and made a very nice little passionfruit and mango pavlova, even mixing a some passionfruit pulp into the whipped cream and decorating with a few well placed mint leaves. All the important elements for a super pav were there – crispy shell, marshmallow-like goodness in the middle, white glossy appearance, height, robust enough to hold lots of freshly whipped cream and topped with sexy looking seasonal fruit.

Below is my pav recipe. I certainly don’t think it’s the only good one out there, I highly doubt it’s the best one, but it’s simple, it works and it always wins me requests for seconds. It’s based on a combination of Donna Hay’s recipe, my grandma’s recipe and my own tinkering. Enjoy (preferably several slices)!

Ingredients
4 large eggwhites
250g pure icing sugar (or castor sugar)
1 teaspoon vanilla essence
2 normal/dessert spoons cornflour
2 teaspoons white vinegar

Equipment
Large flat oven tray
Baking parchment or greaseproof paper
Mixmaster or electric hand beater

Method
– Beat the eggwhites until they start to look white rather than clear (soft peaks starting).
Add in vanilla essence. Don’t freak out if the mixture goes slightly brown, as you keep beating it will return to white.
– Beat in icing sugar until eggwhites look very white, thick and glossy and hold their shape. I’d recommend turning off the Mixmaster to tip in the sugar, otherwise the powdered sugar flies everywhere!
Beat in the vinegar and cornflour. Note that I often use white wine vinegar if I have no normal white vinegar, it doesn’t seem to matter.
– Place a sheet of baking paper on an oven tray. If you have baking parchment, this is probably fine as is, if you have normal greaseproof paper, best to oil it slightly with a flavourless oil (e.g. vegetable or canola).
– Tip the thick eggwhite mixture onto the paper and, using a spatula or knife, shape the mixture into a circle. You could draw a circle on the paper if you wanted, but personally, I’m happy with an approximate circle.
– Shape the mixture so that rather than having a flat top there is a very slight depression in the middle of it (meaning extra room for cream and fruit!).
– Place in the oven for between an hour and an hour and 30 minutes. This will depend a bit on how thick/high you formed your pav and a bit on the oven, humidity etc. Just check it regularly after an hour. You’re looking for a shiny appearance without it turning brown. If you tap the side of it, it should feel hard and crispy and sound kind of hollow.
– Once cooked, turn off the oven and leave in the oven to cool, preferably for several hours.
– Whip thick cream with a little sugar and (optional) vanilla essence. Top the pav with cream.
– Then top with fruit of your choice. For summer I like mango and passionfruit or a mix of berries. For a more classic pav, go with kiwifruit, strawberries and passionfruit.

IP in porridge?

Porridge at Auction Rooms

Porridge at Auction Rooms

Last week I had brekkie at Auction Rooms with a friend of mine. I normally have the Shady Deal, or maybe muesli there, but that morning I opted for Auction Rooms’ three grain porridge with rhubarb (see the pic above). On the page, it sounded extremely similar to Di Bella’s five grain porridge with rhubarb. In realty it was quite different, with the porridge having a rice grain base and the rhubarb being a rhubarb coulis rather than Di Bella’s stewed stems. Di Bella’s was definitely a better interpretation of this idea, in my view. Auction Rooms’ texture was a bit odd and the edible flowers on top didn’t do much for me. I have no idea whose version came first, or if they even know about this shared menu item.

More importantly though, is that this porridge reminded me of a (very nerdy) interest of mine in the ownership of recipes and culinary ideas. Can you patent a cooking technique? Copyright a recipe? Can you own the intellectual property (IP) in porridge? I did look into this some time ago, when I was back at law school doing a subject called ‘Special Topics in IP’. Seeing those near identical menu descriptions (but quite different executions) reminded me of this interesting concept.

In Australia, I think recipes could meet the requirements of a literary work for copyright purposes. But what does that give you? You write a great recipe. Someone can’t then go and reprint that exact recipe in their cookbook and make lots of money. But what’s to stop them taking your recipe and making it in their restaurant, cashing in on your work in that way instead? Even if that was protected, could you prove it? Do you care if they do it?

Cookbooks have existed since at least the thirteenth century apparently, so there must have been a fair bit of appropriation and outright copying over that time. I mean, there are only so many ways you can make a lemon tart or spaghetti Bolognese. Then there is the question of when something becomes different or original enough to make it your own, for you to be the author or ‘owner’ of it, both legally and/or in the culinary world. If you take someone else’s lemon tart recipe and add ouzo, or a coconut crust, is it then yours?

The same questions, of course, have been debated for a lot longer in the art world. And food can be a type of art form, I think. I know a few art fans (my mum included) who might scoff in horror at that suggestion. I’m not saying my strawberry cupcakes are up there with Monet’s waterlilies. But some of the plates I ate at Attica or Vue de Monde encompassed a true appreciation of colour, line, composition and texture. They were thoughtful, carefully constructed by creative people, sometimes amusing, always surprising. That’s art, isn’t it?

Some things I have read on this suggest there is a sort of unofficial ‘honour code’ between chefs who attribute the source or inspiration of recipes in their own cookbooks. Chefs who break these rules and blatantly rip off others’ recipes in their restaurants or cookbooks are shunned, gossiped about and chefs stop sharing or working with them. In a world based on apprenticeships and collaboration, I guess that would be quite effective.

It’s something I have kept in mind in my own handwritten recipe book, where I write down recipes I make regularly. Some are what I would call ‘family recipes’ perhaps original enough to be our own, but many are taken straight from cookbooks. For those I try to write down the source and note any changes to the recipe I make. I know it’s a bit arrogant of me, but I do that in case I ever wanted to publish a cookbook. With these notes I could attribute properly, noting my own innovations along the way.

Is that crazy? I don’t know. I guess it’s partly the lawyer in me. But as chefs push the boundaries on cooking, they innovate with new techniques and the cult of the celebrity chef grows, I think we are going to see a lot more lawyers weighing into the culinary world (and I don’t just mean at their usual table at Bistro Vue!).

Procrasticooking

I didn’t coin the word, sadly. But I love ‘procrasticooking’. I actually saw it as a status update on Facebook and thought, wow, yes that summarises several hours of my week in one nice little word. I’m thinking there are many others out there too, who make elaborate dinners from Gourmet Traveller rather than the vacuuming, attempt a MasterChef style croquembouche tower rather than study for an upcoming exam or turn into Jamie Oliver, pumping out masses of pucker tucker when what you should really be doing is making an appointment to see your dentist.

To get all technical on you for a moment, to procrastinate is to delay or postpone action, to put off doing something. For me procrastination has a sort of wilful-yet-hopeful attitude to it. So when I procrastinate I very earnestly and industriously do something else, all the while kind of hoping that while I watch Game of Thrones or go for a walk my assignment might just actually write itself.

Cooking and/or baking is definitely one of my favourite activities to avoid doing something else. Hence my joy at discovering this new term. I’ve since learned that Urban Dictionary actually has an entry for ‘Procrastibaking’, Procrasticooking’s sweeter doughier cousin. There’s also a blog called ‘Procrastibaking’ and a Facebook page dedicated to it. Obviously I haven’t been doing enough procrastinating to know this!

When I was at Uni I used to procrasticook during the SWOT VAC week. Thinking ahead I’d reason that, when in the midst of complex and intense study, I’d hardly be breaking to make myself dinner. Yet I still had to eat. My brain required better fuel than bananas and three packets of Tim Tams a day. So at the start of the study week I’d make all these dinners, eat some and freeze the rest. It worked pretty well, but I did lose a day of study to my procrasticooking…and I still ate the Tim Tams.

Procrasticooking can be a very creative activity. See, sometimes I’m desperate to avoid something so I go into the kitchen and think, ‘yes, I’ll make a cake, that will solve everything, right?’ However, making something on the spur of the moment probably means I haven’t got all the necessary ingredients. In the past this has led to me inventing alternatives. I’ve made custard when I had no milk (mixing cream with water by shaking it together in the tub works perfectly), cupcakes with no butter (use vegetable oil or sour cream) and a random salad of canned things (canned corn, canned beans, canned chickpeas, plus some garlic and herbs), which was surprisingly good.

Cooking and baking are certainly not the only things I do when procrastinating. I’m procrastiblogging right now, since I’m blogging from bed and avoiding getting out of it. I procrasticlean a lot. Never is my desk so tidy as when I’m under pressure at work. Sometimes I even procrastiexercise, despite my normal lazy attitude to going to the gym. Then there’s the whole going online and procrasti-planning-holidays-I-can’t-yet-afford thing. But procrasticooking perhaps has an edge on these other forms of procrastination in that at the end of your procrastination you have created something. Something solid, measurable and hopefully delicious. You can stand back and look at your giant stack of blueberry pancakes and think yes, it was worth losing that hour of time I should have spent sending emails to do this, because look what I made, look at its glorious pancake-iness, I am a goddess of the kitchen, hear me roar….Ah hem, anyway, you get the idea. You get a product at the end of your procrastination, something to hold on to while you pump out the last of your essay at 11:52pm before the midnight deadline.

So procrasticooking can be a good thing. But like any procrastination, it can be a bad thing if it gets to the stage that you actually fail to do the things you need to do. Delay is ok, complete failure might not be so healthy. In that vein, I’m now going to get out of bed, do my dishes and then get ready to get on a flight (to Sydney) for the weekend. I hope you all have many procrasticooking adventures this weekend!

PS – in a spate of procrastination a few nights ago I’ve redone the look of my blog. Hopefully it is easier to navigate and just, well, prettier. Love to hear what readers think!

PPS – I’ve also included pics of a few yummy things I’ve been eating in North Melbourne lately. These are partly for you and partly to motivate me to get out of bed and make breakfast! Or just go to Di Bella…

Semolina gnocchi at Stovetop in Carlton

Semolina gnocchi at Stovetop in Carlton


Signature muesli at Di Bella in North Melbourne

Signature muesli at Di Bella in North Melbourne

Can't go past a Di Bella chai latte

Can’t go past a Di Bella chai latte