Chocolate! Chocolate! Chocolate!

Have you ever seen a cocoa tree? Or even a cocoa pod? Or followed the pod all the way to when it becomes a chocolate bar? Neither had I.
Chocolate is said to be the food of the gods and I can understand why.
So a few weeks ago we took a drive a couple of hours north to beautiful Mission Beach and particularly to Charley’s Chocolate Factory. A tour of the cocoa farm and and chance to taste awarding winning chocolate was just to good to pass up.

This is a beautiful part of north Queensland and the farm is set in a shallow valley not far from the ocean which make it a perfect micro climate to successfully grow cocoa trees.

Cocoa trees only grow in a very limited area within 20° either side of the Equator. 
In our part of the world we are subject to severe tropical cyclones which in recent years have decimated local crops. The clever people at Charley’s Chocolate farm have implemented a trellis system, training the trees to grow espaliered to the strong wires. It is hoped that this will save the trees during a violent cyclone. It appears this is having the added benefit of a very long, if not year round, harvest.

When we visited in October the trees had tiny flowers…

…as well as large pods of a variety of colours.
Great clumps of green pods.
And huge yellow….
… and purple pods ready to pick
The pods have a thick skin which encases the beans.

At Charley’s Chocolate Factory the washed beans are laid out in the hot sun to dry. 
Wonderful but imagine the panic as the afternoon storms roll in!

The tour is very informative and interesting but unlike other chocolate factories it doesn’t include a factory tour to see the chocolate being made.
But there is heaps of delicious tastings!
The ginger chocolate was my particular favorite!

And of course, at the end there is lots of chocolate to buy.

Charley’s Chocolate Factory is still in it’s infancy but to their credit they have won the 2016 Champion Chocolate Bar and Block at the Royal Melbourne Fine Food Awards.

If you find yourself in this part of the world, do book a tour and see for yourself.  Alternatively this wonderful chocolate is available online so do yourself a favour and order some today.

A Tribute to my Dad and a Simple Soup for my Dad on Father’s Day.

In 1952 a young man from Fiorenzuola D’Arda near Piacenza in Italy embarked on a journey that would take him halfway across the world to a land very unlike his own with a different language and different customs. Like many courageous immigrants fleeing war ravaged Italy this would become his home and a home he came to love.
He came to work on the famed Snowy Mountains Hydro Scheme in New South Wales, Australia. Here he would learn the language and assimilate as best as he could. But in the Snowy’s he did not stay, the lure of the sugar cane fields took him north to Ingham in Queensland where he worked hard alongside his fellow countrymen all keen to make a “few dollars” in the “lucky country”.
By 1961 he returned to Italy to marry his sweetheart and bring his bride back to Australia.

 Within a year they lost their first born child, a girl, three days after her premature birth. His new bride was homesick but determined. Together they worked side by side to build a secure life for their future family. Soon they welcomed a second daughter…

…and then another.
 

The couple made many friends and lots of good times were had…beach picnics, swimming and parties always with lots of laughter.

Fifteen years into their marriage his beloved wife tragically suffered a fatal heart attack. He was a lost and broken man. Life was never quite the same again. He found himself dad and “mum” to his young daughters who were only 9 and 13 years of age… a very difficult task. And even though he later remarried there were always three in that marriage. He never stopped loving his first beloved wife.
 

 
In time, his daughters married. First one…
 
 
 …then the other.
 
 
And his great joy arrived… grandchildren.
 
“The best word is Nonno” he would often say.
 
 
 
The grandchildren grew and he aged.
 
 
Soon it became apparent the unforgiving disease of dementia was taking it’s toll.
 
This was my Dad.
 
Dad lost his battle this year on 29th April when he slipped away surrounded by his family.
Dad had a difficult life. Born in the depression, growing up in Italy in WW1. I’m sure he was often scared and hungry as a child but he never talked about this seriously. He always made light of his childhood. Maybe, he thought, if he told his story it would all be too real.
Dad taught me so much. To appreciate everything you have. He always said he never regretted anything in his life except losing our mum.
After mum passed away, Dad’s cooking abilities gradually surfaced. He had learned alongside his mother.
The staple in our house and in Dad’s repertoire was his “brodo” or broth. Made fresh several times per week taking all morning to simmer on the stove and then used as a light soup with a little pasta and parmesan cheese but also the essential ingredient in his more substantial soups, risotto, pasta sauce and his casseroles of varying types.
When I married and had my own kitchen I too made the “brodo” regularly until I decided I was way to modern for this palava and purchased stock or even stock cubes were way superior! How silly. It is only recently that I have reintroduced the brodo to my household but in a slightly modified version which works in my busy life. Using the slow cooker, I prepare the ingredient in the slow cooker as I clean up after our night meal and the broth will cook slowly all night.
 
I think Dad would be proud… well, once he tasted it!


 
 
My Chicken Broth (idea originally from Smitten Kitchen)
 
1.5 kg chicken wings
3 litres water
1 onion, cut in half
1 carrot, cut into large pieces
a bunch of celery tops and a stalk or two
1 garlic clove, smashed
a few peppercorns
a bayleaf
3 teaspoon salt, or to taste
 
Place all the ingredients into a slow cooker. Turn onto low and cook for 12 hours.
 
 
Just look at this golden goodness.
 

 
Even perfect with just a little good parmesan cheese.

 
This will make 3 litres because no liquid is lost using the slow cooker. It can be simmer very, very slowly on the stove for 4 or 5 hours but you may need to replace some water. Use this wonderful broth as my father would have…in risotto, casseroles, pasta sauces and soups or just as a flavourful broth. Freeze it and have great broth always on hand. It really is the secret to great cooking.
 

This is our first Father’s Day without Dad
 
 
 
This Father’s Day remember to tell your Dad that you love him and appreciate him. We often don’t know what we have until it’s gone.
 
 
Happy Father’s Day, Dad. xxx
We miss you but we know you are with the one you love.
Thank you for all you have shown us.

Come with me to the North Queensland Farmers Markets

The last of the season figs. We bought them all!
Saturday morning, up bright and early to travel the hour and a half to the site of the North Queensland Farmers Markets. Located at the North Shore in Townsville, farmers from all corners of North Queensland gather every Saturday morning to showcase their produce. From the Southern towns of Bowen and Ayr with their vegetable and rice to the Northern areas of the Atherton Tablelands and coastal towns of Ingham, Tully, Innisfail and everywhere in between come the fruits, vegetables, pepper, vanilla peanuts, organic pork, goat and lamb to the western cattle stations who bring in their beef, this is truly feast for the eyes and taste buds. Three Loaves Bakehouse local to Townsville brings in their prize loaves. You must be early as their fabulous bread sells quickly. If you need a coffee fix, that’s catered for as well. And as mid morning approaches and the tummy is growling, head for the gozleme stall – seriously good!
So, join me as I stroll around the market place.
Peanuts, avocados and “ding-dong bell” pumpkins.

Shallots, Lebanese eggplant and snake beans.

Aussie Pepper, vanilla, tea and coffee.

Corn and avocado – Mexican tonight?

Mandarins, mangosteens (a tropical taste sensationand) and paw paw.

Ladyfinger bananas, custard apple and mandarins.

Pineapple, anyone?

 

Fresh apple juice

Capsicums at 50c each are a steal!

Local rice. Can’t get fresher than that.

Chinese greens. Great for a stir-fry.

Delicious locally made granola. Not just for breakfast!

Ahhhh, breakfast!

A good range from the dairys of the Atherton Tablelands

Gozleme cook

Speed rolling

How good is this?

Spinach, cheese and mince gozleme
So if you are holidaying in my part of the world remember it is not just about reef, rainforest and tropical heat we have good food, too!

“Very Nice” Avocado Dip

Planning major renovations to a house involves many hours of decision making. Choosing materials, style, which wall should go, which shouldn’t. You know, that sort of thing. When we renovated our house 12 years ago it was a little different. All the renovations which involved extensions outwards revolved around one thing – the avocado tree. Yes, I know now it seems stupid! The avocado tree had to stay and the extensions were worked around it which resulted in a one bay carport instead of two! Hmmmm, really stupid!
 So it would be very remiss of me not to showcase the tree of such importance. And yes, over the years it has provided ideal first baby solids, lots of breakfasts, lunches and dinners. It has supplied many family, friends, colleagues, neighbours and even the odd tradie with bags of fruit for weeks on end.

This tree is years old and is said to have been plant from seed. It reminds me of the mystical magical Faraway Tree in the children’s tales by Enid Blyton, old, huge and gnarled providing goodies for those who live in it (or near it, in our case). I sometimes wonder if a cloud will stop over the top of the tree and we could climb up into it.

The fruit it bears is huge and luscious and is borne in great quantity. Every year as the fruits set we peer up into the branches and declare, “Oh, not as many as last year.” But as the weeks of bearing and giving of fruit draws to a close, we have all had a fair share of avocado, for this year at least.

Yes, I do have a soft spot for our big, old tree that provides year after year. We are lucky indeed. Many have said we should sell the fruit because there is so much but when the tree gives so selflessly why should we reap financial rewards.
 Sometimes it is in the simple act of sharing the abundance that we find pleasure.

 This avocado dip is jotted down in an old school exercise book long before I ever had unlimited access to such luscious fruit and it is entitled “Very Nice Avocado Dip” so that’s what I will call it.

Very Nice Avocado Dip

1 avocado
1/4 cup mayonnaise or sour cream
1 1/2 tablespoons minced red onion or spring onions
1 – 2 tablespoons lemon juice, to taste
1/2 – 1 teaspoon fresh chilli, to taste
salt and freshly ground pepper

Peel and deseed the avocado. Place in a food processor with the remaining ingredients. Process until smooth. If you want a chunky dip simple mash the avocado with a fork and mix in the remaining ingredients.

Serve with crackers, fresh bread or crackers as I have – flavour the crackers with chilli.

An Award!

I was surprised and thrilled to recently receive the Liebster blog award from my friend Anuja at “simple baking”.

Anjua didn’t specify rules for this award or it’s meaning so I did a bit of research and this is what I came up with.

Liebster is German for dearest, beloved or favorite. From what I understand, this award is given to blogs with less than 200 (or 300 depending on who is writing the rules)  followers but deserve more attention.
And there are rules that come with this award:
  • 1. Thank the blogger who gave you the award and link back to them.
  • 2. Reveal your top five picks (or three, again depends)  and let them know by leaving a comment on their blog.
  • 3. Copy and paste the award on your blog.
  • 4. Hope that the people you’ve sent the award to forward it to their five favorite bloggers and keep it going!
I decided it would be fun to participate all in the spirit of getting to know more blogs with a similar interest- food! There is no obligation to participate. If I have passed it on to you  and it’s not your thing, that’s fine.
Here are my picks:
Nish Whips up a dish – gorgeous cake this month!
 Le Ricette di Jenny Passione e Fantasia in Cucina – great Italian food – use your translate button.
Bake Away with Me – self confessed avid baker
As Strong as Soup – Phil has a French accent on cooking
At Anna’s kitchen Table – homely and delicious.

Thank you Anuja for bestowing this award on me!

Nigella’s Churros with Chocolate Dipping Sauce

The most recent addition to my cookbook collection is Nigella Lawson’s “Kitchen”. As I skimmed through it I knew I would be trying out her Churros with chocolate dipping sauce recipe as soon as possible. I liked her recipe because it eggless. Most of the recipes I have seen for churros are basically a choux pastry rich in eggs and somehow it just didn’t sit well with me. I have never like that gooey uncooked centre in a cream puff hence mine are always well baked! 
In the aftermath of the cyclone with no electricity for more than a week and heaps of outdoor work to do, baking took step to the side. But I was having bad “baking withdrawal” symptoms! So, left to my own devices when the family made yet another trip to the dump, I set to work eager to surprise them with a sweet treat! And churros, it was! We really enjoyed these churros. I piped them thinner than the ones I have eaten so they were deliciously crunchy. The chocolate dipping sauce is a must!
Churros with chocolate dipping sauce (adapted from Kitchen by Nigella Lawson)
which Nigella claims should be enough for 4-6 but…
I doubled this recipe – I think Nigella must have be on a very strict diet that day!
50g caster sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon or to taste
125g plain flour
1 1/2 teaspoon baking powder
15ml olive oil
250ml freshly boiled water
oil for deep frying
Chocolate Sauce
50g dark chocolate
75g milk chocolate
150ml cream
Mix the sugar and the cinnamon together. Set aside for coating the churros in later.
Melt all the chocolate ingredients really gently in a saucepan until it all melts and combines. Set aside.
To make the churros: put the flour into a bowl and stir in the baking powder then beat in the olive oil and freshly boiled water from the kettle. Keep mixing until you have warm sticky dough. Leave it rest for 10 minutes while you heat up the oil to about 170C.
When you are ready fit a piping bag with a star shaped nozzle (I used about 8mm one) and  fill with the dough. Squeeze out lengths of dough. I just used my finger to break each one off the nozzle.
Cook only a few at a time until golden brown. Drain on absorbent paper then toss in cinnamon sugar.
Reheat the sauce if needed.
Serve churros with Chocolate dipping sauce in individual pots ( to avoid the double dipping dilemma) and dip away!

Surviving Cyclone Yasi

Two weeks ago, on the 2nd February, North Queensland survived Queensland’s largest and most powerful cyclone ever recorded. The preceding days were filled with anxiety amongst a flurry of activity as we prepared to be pummeled by this monster. I cannot describe the fear as we realised we were directly in its path. As further reports were broadcast, the cyclone moved slightly north so we would escape the direct hit but not it’s powerful outer winds. Reports by storm chasers in our area calculate the winds as somewhere between 250kms/hour to 309kms/hour. To grasp the size of this monster cyclone click here. The night of the 2nd February, 2011 was long and frightening and will not be forgotten for a long time.
 When we peered out of windows at first light, with winds still extremely gusty we were greeted with a changed landscape – trees devoid of leaves, striped of bark, others fallen and snapped, electricity power lines fallen and twisted, corrugated iron scattered and crumpled, mountains prickly with the outline of striped trees,sugar cane crops at an unnatural angle. Further north homes and crops totally destroyed. The first 3 or 4 days our area had no water, electricity or telephones. Utilities are being restored gradually with army and tradespeople from all over Queensland and beyond swooping on our area to help with the mammoth task. Many still have no electricity and camping and candlelit dinners are becoming tiresome.

Here I took a few pics of our property.



This 100 plus year old mango tree was uprooted not far from our bedroom.



The roots simply ripped out of the earth with the tremendous force of the winds.



Our machinery shed has a new skylight due to sheets of corrugated iron being ripped off during the cyclone.



Native trees are striped of leaves and bark hence their orange colour

Luckily for us bananas are not our lively hood but we won’t be enjoying any bananas from these plants for many months.

The sugarcane crops lie at a 45 degree angle.

This dwelling once housed cane cutters of the district and now was good extra storage for our farm.

Trees snapped and in the background the sugar cane almost lies horizontal.

In the following days as we were able to get around I took a few more photos but honestly it was just too overwhelming to keep taking photos.

The local high school grounds. 

These steel  6 tonne capacity sugar cane “bins” were tossed about as though they were cardboard boxes.  
The Australian Army arrived to lend a helping hand.
Miraculously, only one life was lost during Cyclone Yasi. Police said the young man was killed by fumes from a generator he was running inside a closed room after the storm knocked out electricity.

Move over Nigella – New Domestic Goddesses have arrived!

How does a girl celebrate her 16th birthday? A barbecue with friends? An all girls sleepover? Well, not my daughter! Always one to think of something different, my daughter decided she would like to invite a group of friends to a Masterchef-style challenge to celebrate her recent 16th birthday. 
“Sure, honey!”
I just wondered how we would manage this one!
So, the invitations were sent but the actual challenge remained a mystery. All the girls accepted the challenge and although most had little experience in the kitchen, all were fanatical followers of the TV reality show.
A cupcake challenge would be the easiest in many ways. We decided on a basic muffin recipe because it is easily made without an electric mixer but can still be flavoured in many ways and iced and decorated creatively. The recipe cards were printed and some crazy, fun rules were made up. Ingredients were bought – spices, nuts, dried fruit, spreads, syrups and various forms of chocolate and sweets along with food colourings and assorted sprinkles- and displayed on the day of the big event.

 

The eight contestants were paired to make 4 teams and each received purpose made aprons in their team colour along with a wooden spoon and a measuring cup to help complete the challenge. Once the challenge was announced and the quite ridiculous list of rules read, the ingredients were unveiled. The teams were given 3 minutes to check out the ingredients and 2 minutes to brainstorm with their partner before the one hour challenge began in earnest. This is when the flour began to fly and the eggs and milk poured from the table onto the floor! 

Cupcakes (muffins) were baked and carefully checked!

And then the decorating began….

…..Precision,

….expertise,

…and concentration was required!

Finally the proud result but the judging was still to come! My husband paraded as George Colombaris while my son became Matt Preston. But wait there was more… Maggie arrived! My sister threw herself fully into her roll as Maggie Beer discussing with her fellow judges the attributes of each entry, the crumb, the texture and the presentation. Matt threw his plate to the floor saying “That is disgusting……disgustingly good!”
Certificates were given in various categories – Best Plating, Most Creative Cupcake, Most Likely to Succeed and The Grand Prize which also took out the coveted trophy!
Everyone had a fun day and more food colouring, butter and chocolate was used in one single batch of cakes and icing than I thought possible!

Most Likely to Succeed – “Chocolate Insomnia”
espresso and chocolate)

Best Plating – “Contagious Choc Cherry Cupcake Creations”
(Chocolate and Cherry Ripe)

Most Creative – “Heaven Delight”
(white chocolate and butter)

Grand Prize – “Chocolate Extravaganza”
(Mars bar and chocolate fudge)

Basic Muffins

2 cups self raising flour (or all purpose flour plus 4 teaspoons baking powder)
3/4 cup fine white sugar
1 egg
3/4 cup milk
1/2 cup canola oil
vanilla

Sift flour and mix with sugar. Combine egg, milk, oil and vanilla and add to dry ingredients. Spoon into large cupcake trays. Bake at 200C for 15 minutes.
Variations are totally your discretion!

Chilli Mud Crab

At the moment the southern part of Queensland is cleaning up and recovering from the most devasting floods for many years. An area said to be the size of France and Germany put together has been affected. Lives have been lost and still more are missing.We watched our television in horror as cars were overturned and swept away by the flash flood, trees bent and twisted as if they were toothpicks and steel and concrete structures destroyed. A flood relief appeal was immediately set up to help the many Queenslanders left homeless by the force of Mother Nature.  The bad weather and floods have now moved  further south and are now affecting New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania while bush fires have raged in Western Australia. Such is the land “down under” that we call home, Australia. A land of extreme diversities.
Many dear friends have asked about mine and my family’s welfare and for that I thank you for your care and concern. But even though I live in Queensland, we are over 1000km north of the disasterous floods and are enjoying our tropical North Queensland lifestyle. 
Relaxing on the beach, fishing and eating good food are what our lifestyle is all about. Recently my husband and son brought home a wonderful catch of three, glorious mudcrabs. Mudcrabs (scylla serrata)  have a wonderful, delicate, sweet meat. Usually, we simply boil or steam the crabs and pick out the meat to be enjoyed with an olive oil and red wine vinegar dressing.  But this time I tried this recipe with great results!  
Mudcrabs are large crabs with a found in the northern tropical to temperate waters of Australia. They inhabit sheltered estuaries, tidal reaches of some rivers mud flats and mangrove forests. Crabs favour the soft muddy bottom. Their  two hind legs are flattened for swimming. But the two front nippers are large and strong for crushing and cutting their prey.
Now onto the recipe! It may seems a lot of work but I promise you it’s worth it! 
Once you have your live mudcrabs  (2 or 3 crabs for four people is about right) you will need to clean and prepare them for cooking. Kill them by placing in the freezer for an hour or two. Then you are ready to clean them. 
1.Clean the outside of the mud crab with a brush under running water.
2.If you want to keep the top shell to place back on the crab when you plate it up, lift the flap on it’s belly and pull the top shell from the back of the crab forward, then halve the crab with a knife.
(You can cook the top shell in with the rest of the crab)
4.Remove the guts and feathery lungs from the body.

5.Brush out any muck from the inside of the crab.

6.Crack the shells of each portion before cooking to let the flavors in (one tap on each with a knife sharpening steel will do the trick). You can cut each half in half again quartering the crab – if that makes sense!
 Now the fun stuff! Warm up a wok with a few spoonfuls of canola oil,  2 tablespoons finely chopped garlic, 2 teaspoons grated ginger and chilli. The chilli is up to you, your taste and the strength of your chilli. I used 8 of my home grown, dried chillis, ground up finely. When the aromatics are letting you know how great they smell, toss in the portioned crab.  Stir fry until the crab is starting to change colour but don’t allow the garlic is burn.
Toss through 1 finely sliced, red capsicum.
At this point it is time to add in the ingredients which will become the sauce.
 Puree a 400g tin tomatoes, mix with 3 tablespoons black bean sauce, 4 tablespoons soy sauce and 4 tablespoons sweet chilli sauce. Pour over the crab and stir through.
Add 2 tablespoons sherry, 2 tablespoon white vinegar and 2 tablespoons grated palm sugar. ( You can also use brown sugar)

Stir through 140ml coconut cream and allow to simmer absorbing the flavourful sauce until the crab has completely changed colour and is tender and cooked.  Toss through a handful of sliced, spring onions.

Arrange on a deep platter of steamed jasmine rice placing the pieces in the appropriate position to reassemble the crab crowning it with the top shell! Sprinkle with another handful on sliced, spring onions.
Provide plenty of napkins and enjoy with a salad!

An Award?….For Me?

How pleasantly surprised I was when I was contacted by She Whisks from Whisk Whisk Whisk to pass on the One Lovely Blog Award! Marcellina in Cucina to receive the One Lovely Blog Award! I can’t believe it especially coming from Whisk Whisk Whisk. You must check out this blog because although relatively new to the blogging world she is obviously not new to the baking world. This lady is very talented indeed!
Now, onto the conditions:-
1. Accept the award. Post it on your blog with the name of the person who granted the award and his or her blog link.
2. Pay it forward to 15 other bloggers that you have newly discovered.
3. Contact those blog owners and let them know they’ve been chosen.

So here is the hard part. Choosing which bloggers to pay this award forward to. So many of you have such lovely blogs which inspire and amaze me so it has been hard to make my choices but he goes.

Mid-Western Girl with a Texas Address
Barbara Bakes
Level 2 Mommy
Testado, Provado e Aprovado ….Renata actually gave me this award as well! Thank you, Renata!
Melanger
Baker’s corner…Somewhere in my Kitchen
My Baking Adventures
Muchkin Munchies
Olla-Podrida
Pane, Burro e Marmellata
From Apples 2 Zucchini
Parsley, Sage, Desserts and Line Drives
Of Muses and Meringues
Cakelaw
Trissalicious

Check out these great blogs! They really do deserve the One Lovely Blog award!