Thursday, 28 March 2013

Roman Holidays & Twofer Pumpkin Bread

I realised that in the past 6 weeks there have been 2 American holidays - Valentines Day and St.Patrick's Day. A third more personal holiday was my daughter's birthday. Of the three, my daughter's birthday was the one that was fully celebrated. She was serenaded at the bus stop, her locker was decorated at school, each friend gave her candy, and she was sung to again at soccer practise. The last time she was so excited about a birthday was when she turned 4! The large bag of candy is the closest she'll ever get a an American Halloween.

While I was thinking about the topic of holidays down under, my US friend posted an article from The Huffington Post, on her Facebook page titled: 'Can We Bring the Holidays Down a Notch?' (
I found this ironic as I'd been thinking about this same topic and wondering if there was any holiday hoopla in Australia? Should I continue my American celebrations of Valentine's Day, St.Patrick's Day and even Halloween even if they are not celebrated much where I am currently living? When in Rome, should I be a Roman?

Since a topic like this is hard to research, I searched out my dog park acquaintances. This is an excellent "research group" to speak with as they are different ages, different professions, different personalities, and bear no emotional connection to me. Overall, I was told in the usual direct, honest Aussie way - Why would you celebrate Valentine's Day or St.Patrick's Day or Halloween? What is the significance of these days? What do you know about them? Aren't these fluffy holidays; just a ploy to spend more money and buy more things (aka American consumerism)? Since holiday traditions stem from childhood memories, there are many questions I need to ask as I continue living overseas and raising children here - Isn't it nice to celebrate Valentine's Day, a holiday  focusing on love? Yes. Do I really need to eat more chocolate and buy a Target red t-shirt for that day? No. With my husband and I sharing Irish heritage, is it important to celebrate St. Patrick's Day? Maybe. Do I want to eat corned beef and cabbage? No but the beer is fine. Is it fun to dress up for Halloween? Yes. Do the kids need all that candy? No. Lots to consider.....

From my experience, the only holidays that are big celebrations here are those with large significance - birthdays, ANZAC Day (veterans), Australia Day, and Christian holidays - Christmas and Easter. This is not surprising since according to 2011 Census, 61% of Australians adhere to some form of Christianity and religion is also in taught in public schools. As we get closer to Easter, I'm seeing lots of Easter candy and flowers in the stores. The Royal Easter Show (think fancy county fair) is in full swing and Good Friday and Easter Monday are both public holidays, so a four day weekend is upon us. It is really a holiday as the country will shut down. Except for the petrol station, a grocery store and maybe a few cafes, everything else will be closed. I am glad to see some Easter hoopla because at the end of the day, I like any holiday that gives people time to slow down, visit with family & friends, and eat a good meal.

With Easter approaching, I'm automatically thinking about chocolate, tulips, longer days and sunshine. These are the nostalgic things that remind me of my youth and growing up in upstate New York. I still get confused with the opposite Southern Hemisphere seasons. Here in Australia, Easter is an autumn holiday. March 1 (yes, March 1 not March 21) indicates the beginning of autumn (and yes, that is 'autumn' and not 'fall' as people only fall down or fall pregnant). With the cooler weather that is yet to come, I am trying to think about apples, sweaters, and crock pot cooking. One of my favourite everyday autumn recipes is Pumpkin Bread. I call it Twofer Pumpkin Bread as this recipe makes 2 loaves, uses only 2 bowls (the less clean up the better) and I make 2 different types of pumpkin bread with this one recipe. I LOVE this pumpkin bread - it is healthy, moist and more nutritious than most loaf breads.

Twofer Pumpkin Bread
altered from original recipe in Baked: New Frontiers in Baking cookbook



3.25 cups/455 g of  regular flour

2 tsp/10 g cinnamon

1 tsp/5 g nutmeg

1/2 tsp/2.5 g allspice

1/2 tsp/2.5 g ginger 

2 tsp/10 g baking soda

1 tsp/5 g salt

1-15 oz can/420 g of pumpkin puree* (see notes at bottom)

1 cup/240 ml vegetable oil * (see note at bottom)

2 cups/400 gm sugar

4 large eggs

1 tsp/5ml pure vanilla extract

1/2 cup/120 ml water

Optional  Mix-Ins - chocolate chips, sultanas (raisins), walnuts, pecans

1) Preheat oven to 350 F/ 175 C degrees.

2) In large bowl, make dry mixture: add flour, cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, baking soda, and salt. Hand stir to combine.

3) In another bowl, make wet mixture: add pumpkin puree and vegetable oil and hand stir through to combine. Add sugar and stir through again. Add eggs one at a time and stir through with each addition.Add vanilla extract and water and stir through.

4) Add wet mixture to dry mixture in 3 batches. Hand stir through to combine with each addition, making sure to scrape down sides and churn up bottom so the batter mixes evenly. The batter will be slightly lumpy BUT you do not want to over beat batter as this will make the bread denser and more chewy.

5) Divide batter between 2 greased loaf pans and place in oven OR add additional mix-ins to bread. In my photos, I divided the finished batter equally between the 2 used bowls and added 3/4  dark chocolate chips to 1 bowl and a 3/4 cup mix of raisins/sultanas and walnuts to the other.

6) Place loaves into oven and cook for 1 hour 15 minutes. If you can, rotate each loaf pan 1/2 way through cooking to ensure more even cooking.

7) When cool, serve plain or toasted with butter or cream cheese.

- Libby's Pumpkin Puree is sold at speciality deli's. In my neighbourhood, the Green Grocer always stocks it near the deli, just ask. Another substitution is microwaving a Jap Pumpkin and then pureeing it so you have 2 cups. (Yes, there is a Jap pumpkin here and also a fish called, 'Jewfish') 

- To reduce fat, instead of 1 cup vegetable oil, use 1/2 cup vegetable oil and 1/2 cup applesauce.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Driving down under & Easy Tuscan Pasta
Did you ever feel like a taxi driver? Perhaps 'chauffeur' sounds better, at least fancier. Now that school is in full swing, I seem to be doing a lot of driving for my 2 children - dropping/picking them up from the bus stop, after school activities, sports' training, friends' houses, etc. I'm so glad I got rid of my old station wagon last year and bought a sporty sedan. At least, I can troll the streets in luxury. I was warned by others that getting a 5-seat sedan was a bad idea. It wouldn't be good for carpooling since it doesn't seat 7 people. Do I really want 6 kids and myself in the car, six girls laughing and chatting it up in the backseats? I think not. It all sounds nice but the screaming and singing  is quite dangerous for a driver like myself.  I am a very distracted driver - 'look at that colourful bird....hmm, what kind of car is that....oh, I love that old Stevie Wonder song, time to start speeding and do the white man's overbite while I bop my head around.' Yes, I admit, I am a sub par, female driver. While some people have huge dreams of what they'll do and buy when they strike it rich, mine are simple - I want a chauffeur to drive ME around.

Driving in Sydney has it challenges. For starters, driving on the opposite, dare I say wrong side of the road, is quite an adjustment. My husband has taught me to hug the centre line of the road as it is quite natural to veer to the left. The first few months living here, I drove around with my radio off, clenching the steering wheel while saying aloud, 'drive on the left, Susan, stay in lane, you are too young to die, hug the white line!' just like Rain man, over and over again. Another challenge that I face on a daily basis is playing chicken with oncoming cars in my neighbourhood. With cars usually parked on either side of the street, it is Russian roulette to decide who will move over to the let the other one through first - yikes!

Sydney is Australia's largest city and it is estimated that there are 4.6 million people in the Sydney area. While the city has grown, the road infrastructure is lacking. The roadways are very congested and many of the major roadways are narrow local roads. I cringe when a big city bus is in the lane next to me as I think it could sideswipe me at any moment. Despite my complaints, I find the drivers in Sydney to be quite nice. You don't hear the symphony of horns blaring like you do in New York. In fact, I rarely hear horns at all as you are only suppose to use yours if you are about to get into an accident. The drivers use their turn signals most of the time and are courteous about letting you switch into their lane when your directional is on.

Like learning the Aussie lingo, there are is different lingo for driving too. Your car trunk is the boot, gas is petrol, the petrol station is the servo, the bonnet is the hood and many others.The 'Yield' sign has been replaced with a different warning, 'Give Way'.  The warning of a crosswalk is oddly indicated by a huge snakelike zigzag lines on either side of the crosswalk. There are a lot of roundabouts (aka rotaries) instead of traffic lights. Speed cameras are in effect in various areas and it is a shock if you get a ticket in your mailbox. The fines are expensive, you can't contest them (you must pay), and you lose points on your license. The sad thing is after passing the speed camera sign so many times, it becomes part of the scenery and you forget about it until you get a ticket. (Perhaps that happened to me?) I love seeing the koala and kangaroo signs but unfortunately I haven't seen either in this densely populated area.

With all my driving adventures, I don't have always have the time to make the dinners I'd like. During the week, I am always look for something fast, easy and nutritious. A favourite dish is Easy Tuscan Pasta which can be made in 20 minutes or less, all while the pasta is cooking. It is healthy and very filling.

Easy Tuscan Pasta

Base Recipe:
1 regular sized bag of penne or rigatoni

1 can of stewed or diced tomatoes

1 bag on fresh spinach

1 can navy/cannellini beans, drained

1/2 - 1 container of feta (plain, not in oil)

Add Ons:
sauteed onions, mushroom, garlic, olives, sundried tomatoes, Chorizo sausage, red chili flakes

1) Fill large pot with salted water and boil. When it has reached a rolling boil, add bag of pasta.

2) While pasta is cooking, empty entire can of tomatoes into large saucepan and heat through. Add bag of spinach. Spinach will appear to be overflowing from the pan but as you stir it more and more, it will decrease in size and mix in with the tomatoes.

3) Drain and then rinse can of beans. Stir beans into sauce until beans are well blended and some are starting starting to break. Do NOT cook the beans for too long as they will become glue-like. The beans add a nice creamy texture to the dish; you don't want to lose that.

4) Sprinkle 1/2-1 container of feta cheese in sauce and stir until mostly melted in the sauce and the sauce looks creamy and lighter in colour.

5) Serve over cooked pasta on its' own or with salad, bread, red wine.

-  Use penne or rigatoni pasta. Thin pasta, like spaghetti, does not work well.
-  Cooking pasta - cooks often add some oil to their water hoping it'll prevent the pasta from sticking. The oil doesn't help it and only makes the pot greasy. Salted water is best as it makes the water boil at a higher temperature and only very minimally transfers the salty taste to the pasta. To stop pasta from sticking together, add 1 cup of cold water to the pot and stir just before draining pasta.

- This is a base recipe because it is quick and easy but you can also personalise it to suit your taste. I purposely did not put sizes on the ingredients as some may like more or less of the canned tomatoes, spinach, and/or feta.

- If you have the time, I would encourage chopping and sauteing an onion and/or mushroom as the very first step, then adding the tomatoes. Leftover, cut up sausages adds flavour as does chili pepper flakes or olives or sundried tomatoes. Whatever is in your refrigerator that you think would taste good, give it a go!

Thanks for reading. If you like this recipe/blog, please comment below and spread the word about this blog. Also, you can subscribe to this blog on the upper right side of the page. Bon Appetit from down under!

Special design for SuzyQ Under Down by GeCe