Thursday, 27 December 2007

Festive More-ish Macarons

Duncan of Syrup & Tang has been spreading the gospel on the sugary delights of macarons (light almond meringue biscuits sandwiched with sweet flavoured filling) to the ignorant and enlightened alike within the Melbourne blogosphere, and I had not been immune. In my previous post I touched on the challenge of gifting something small but different as celebratory bonbons in place of the usual cellophane wrapped handful of chocolate and lollies bought from the supermarket. Having recalled vague distant memories of macarons due to recent postings about these delights in the local food blogs, I too was struck with the idea that some homebaked ones would make ideal and unique cellophane fillers. Yeah was I to know that the process would be so fraught with the need for fiddly details, requiring prerequisite degrees in both food chemistry and would you believe, meteorology! Luckily Duncan had most accommodatingly provided step-by-step protocols ( for those who wished to try their hand at making some.

I won't detail Duncan's recipe here as it's readily accessible in all its eloquent glory at his own site. Suffice to say that I followed his Italian meringue recipe pretty much to the letter, deciding on a base vanilla flavour provided from scrapings of a split vanilla bean. I confess that my first attempt at baking the macarons was total and humbling failure, resulting in sticky, soft, ugly pock-marked flat wafers that looked nothing like the gloriously smooth-domed wonders that they're meant to be! Well I put that setback down to my optimisation phase, convinced that I'd overmixed all the air out of the batter. My confidence recovered a day or two later for another attempt, this time deciding to divide the blended dry ingredients into exact halves by weight in order to add different flavourings and/or colourings to each. One half with just red liquid food colouring, and the other half-a-batch with some matcha green tea powder plus some extra green from food colouring (for the festive red and green gift-set). I also took extra care not to overmix the batter once the meringue was folded in! Imagine my excitement when after approximately 5 minutes in the oven my macarons started to rise off their 'feet' and to form perfectly smooth domes. Unfortunately, the second red half produced a drier batter and was not as successful although the resultant macarons still rose but their feet puffed out sideways and their domes were quite lumpy. Not quite as picturesque as their green counterparts. Overall though, I was more than pleased with the results from only two attempts. Think I'll now leave home-baked macarons alone for awhile however. By all accounts, continuing with such fallacious confidence and sense of tantalising achievement would be tempting fate!

Festive macarons in seasonal green and red livery

I sandwiched the macarons with a dark chocolate ganache flavoured with Cointreau and a faint hint of chilli, for that 'secret' buzz of something indiscernibly special (grated orange zest and dried chilli flakes were added to the cream for boiling then sieved before adding to blitzed chocolate and the liqueur added when cooled). The flavours in the matcha macarons in particular were heavenly. Feedback from those that received some of these macarons have yielded comments in the vein of, "These are the best cookies! What are they and where did you buy them?" Thank you Syrup & Tang!

Wednesday, 26 December 2007

Festive Crabapple Cupcakes

We just stumbled in through the door from a bountiful but thankfully not overly indulgent Christmas dinner at our friends' place, a fellowship of family-less interstate expatriates. And so Christmas is over for another year but while the spirit still lingers, here's the first of several posts about some of the delectables we'd encountered during the festive period.

My desk at work is strewn with a collection of chocolate bars and other mixed confectionary, the bounty of Season's best wishes from colleagues in the lead up to Christmas. For my part, I figured that most of us wouldn't really need yet another bar of chocolate or ball of candy to add to the hoard but what would serve as a nice alternative? A visit to Prahran Market last weekend offered one solution, delightfully festive themed and decorated cupcakes from The Crabapple Cupcake Bakery.

The Crabapple cupcakes certainly have the ogle factor. While awaiting our turn at the stall, various groups of pre- (and more than some post-) pubescent girls (and boys) ooh-ed and aah-ed at the stacked glass counter with almost as much wide-eyed gusto as if the latest batch of Australian Idol finalists were locked within. The Christmas frosted cupcakes were $4 apiece and build on either a vanilla or light chocolate sponge-like base. Regular non-themed cupcakes offered even more flavour choices. The cake itself was quite nice and the buttercream frosting not sickeningly sweet. I particularly enjoyed a vanilla flavoured one once I got past the hurdle of its pastel cutesiness. From what I read, Crabapple Bakery's founder and owner Jennifer Graham had certainly invested a fair amount of trial and research on the way to perfecting her recipes. Her cupcakes are now well recognised.

Back at the office, a single cupcake sitting atop a Christmas card provided recipients with a sweet and festive surprise for morning tea.

The Crabapple Cupcake Bakery
Shop 6 Prahran Market, 163 Commercial Road, South Yarra, VIC.

Edit: Spot4Nosh believes that The Crabapple Cupcake Bakery at Prahran Market is no longer in business.

Sunday, 9 December 2007

The Chronicles of Ramen - Ajisen Ramen

Following a previous post about some truly soul rejuvenating and memorable bowls of ramen we'd slurped on while on holiday in Christchurch NZ, Hungry Hamster left a comment enquiring about whether decent puveyors of ramen exist here in Melbourne. Well the short answer was that I really hadn't stumbled across that many to provide any decent recommendations. The best I could come up with was to suggest Ajisen Ramen in the city where at least there was a readily accessible range of ramen choices on offer and global franchise notwithstanding, the bowls of noodles we've had there were not bad if not particularly outstanding. The nihon-authenticity of Ajisen's ramen is probably debated, although the franchise boasts of their Kyushu (Kumamoto city) style tonkotsu (pork bones)-based stock broth. Most of the ramen dishes centre around this tasty milky coloured broth served in voluminous bakelite-like bowls accompanied by matching ladles to sup with.

We visited Ajisen Ramen again recently and had a Chashu (pork) Ramen and the Karaage (deep-fried chicken) Ramen. Ajisen's bowls of ramen offer substantial individual meals, filled generously with soup along with the meat of choice, mix of shredded vegetables, seaweed strips, and halves of hardboiled egg. The ramen noodles were quite satisfyingly to-the-bite and the broth as tasty as I recalled from our last visit, although the soup in the karaage ramen was too oily from the fried chicken pieces for complete guilt-free enjoyment. The chashu ramen went down much better and I would certainly stick to the plainer options on future visits.

Bowls of ramen here are around about the $10 mark and the very extensive laminated-card menu also offers a variety of other a la carte choices, plus donburi and bento set boxes. But of course the ramen is what most come here for. Overall a quick and handy ramen fix but I guess we're still looking for that truly memorable ramen experience here in Melbourne.

Food: 3 spots - If ramen is what you're here for.
Service: 3 spots - Depends on mood of Asian student on the day but generally quick.
Value: 3.5 spots - There are cheaper noodles around but this is good value for the grade of food and dining space.
R-Factor: 3.5 spots - Not our first visit and likely not our last.
Spot Score: 13/20

Ajisen Ramen
130 Bourke Street, Melbourne, VIC.

Thursday, 6 December 2007

Say 'Aarrh' and Show Me Your Tongue! - Blue Tongue Wine Bar and Restaurant

Postings here have been few and far between of late with time spent barely escaping from work, then having to manage the upheaval of moving to a new residence when we do get away. But our fresh and very rich hunting grounds in Brunswick open up great epicurean possibilities. Not that we haven't been out and about in the last couple of months, including first-time visits to both Rockpool and Nobu. Certainly plenty to tell, but more to come on those later.

Yesterday afternoon found us stopping by friends' apartment at the leafy bayside suburb of Elwood. The visit happened to be food related, as we were dropping off their half-share of a crate of mangoes. Plump and luscious Kensington Prides that faintly perfumed the car for the evening. Following our delivery, we stopped to grab dinner and a few drinks at the Blue Tongue wine bar and restaurant. The place stood out despite being nondescriptly signed as it was located near the heart of the village and bustled with a noisy after-work crowd that spilled out off the front al fresco area. We however, scored a table towards the back end atrium space. Blue Tongue is just what you would expect from any such establishment in this it casual chic, or chic casual? Bare floors, paper over linened tables, arranged cutlery and glassware, and a dimly lit interior dominated by an inviting bar. Despite being on a Tuesday night, it was lively.

Quite an extensive menu selection with perhaps half a dozen daily specials was on offer. We had the Mixed Chargrilled Seafood over a Rocket and Tomato Salad ($29.50), and a Prime Ribeye Fillet served with Herbed Potato Mash and Roasted Mushrooms ($33.50). Unusually salty but pleasantly chewy slices of sourdough to go with some rather bland oil and swirl of balsamic vinegar was proffered after orders were taken. I also chilled with a glass of Stella on tap ($6) while waiting for our food. The arrival of the grilled seafood dish brought some excitement as the mount of seafood was impressive and generous, an appetising jumble of prawns, squid portions, large mussels and cutlet of blue eye trevalla straddled by two halves of a whole sand crab (flower crab). Under all that hid the salad greens and cherry tomato halves. The seafood survived the chargrill perfectly cooked and were fresh and delightfully sweet with highlights of garlicky crispiness.

The tender squid pieces sporting charred edges were a revelation.

The eye fillet on the other hand was just okay. A thick medallion of meat was cooked just as ordered to medium-rare but could’ve been better seasoned and wasn’t at all juicy. Normally when cutting into even a well rested steak, one would expect some puddling of meat juices but not a hint of liquid was in sight here. Similarly the mash couldn’t be described in any sense of the word as creamy and the serve of sliced mushrooms verged on rubbery. Surrounded by an almost non-existent dribbling of some dark balsamic jus reduction, the whole plate could be best described as a bit parched. Stealing from the other dish for some impromptu surf and turf helped but good steak should really be expected to hold their own.

Our waiter was cheery and sufficient but let us down towards the end following our dessert order. After 30 minutes waiting on our Chocolate Fondant with King Island Cream ($9.50), he turned up with an apology that he’d got the order wrong and we were up for a further 10-minute wait. By the time it arrived, we were too ready to go to truly appreciate its rich and suitably oozing hot chocolate centre and accompanying garnish of quite more-ish honeycomb crumble. So our meal at Blue Tongue was rather hit and miss, but the place appears to have broad appeal not just for dinner and evening drinks but for all times of the day. Jamie of The Breakfast Blog is a fan of their Eggs Benedict though unfortunately for us, Elwood is too far away from our regular patch to make a pre-lunchtime breakfast there a viable weekend option anytime soon. Perhaps our friends will give their breakfast a try and report back!

Food: 3 spots - Surf a hit but turf a miss.
Service: 4 spots - Attentive nonchalance.
Value: 3 spots - What you'd expect.
Returnability(R) Factor: 3.5 spots - The bar could be a regular after work affair if we lived nearby, but we don't.
Spot Score: 14/20

Blue Tongue Wine Bar
62-64 Ormond Road, Elwood, VIC.