Saturday, 24 August 2013

Australian Federal Election & Adults Only Gluten Free Brownies

Tony Abbott, leader of the Opposition
Liberal Party

Julia Gillard, first female PM
ousted Kevin Rudd to become PM &
then recently ousted by Kevin Rudd
Labour Party
Kevin Rudd, current & past PM
Labour Party

On September 7, the federal election will be held in Australia. The current Prime Minister ("PM"), Kevin Rudd, called the election on August 4, which was only a little over 1 month beforehand and less than 2 months after he ousted Julia Gillard to become PM again - yes again. Julia Gillard was Australia's first female PM and she overthrew Kevin Rudd in 2010. So, in less than a 3 month time span, Kevin Rudd overthrows Julia Gillard and calls a federal election to elect the ruling party and possibly have another PM. The leader of the Opposition is Tony Abbott and opinion polls currently show that the Liberal Party will win and he will in turn become PM. At least 2 PMs and possibly 3 PMs in 3 months? Have I moved to Italy?! How does this happen in Australia, a country with the world's most stable economy for the past 20 years? The country that again was #1 on the OECD Better Life Index? Possibly 3 PMs in 3 months is well, interesting to say the least to this Yankee girl. While Australians are use to their political system and don't find these events abnormal, I am fascinated. 'The Daily Show' also was interested and had a great clip on the Australian election with the hilarious John Oliver. Click on the link, give it a go and have a laugh!

To write this blog, I had to go back and do some research. (Perhaps this is why it takes me so long to write these blogs :)) The US is a republic with the President elected indirectly by the voters and directly through the Electoral College. Election day is set on the first Tuesday in November, every 4 years. No US President may serve more than 2 terms. So comparatively (and that's what I am always doing as an ex-pat) it would take at years to have 3 different leaders in power. Australia is a constitutional monarchy and the PM is chosen internally by the elected members of the party/parties that have won a majority of seats in the House of Representatives. The Australian House of Representatives serve a 3 year term but the Australian PM may dissolve Parliament and call an early election. There are no term limits down under as long as the public vote to keep the ruling party in office and the ruling members continue to allow the PM to lead. The longest running PMs are Sir Robert Menzies who served a total of 18 years and more recently, John Howard who served a total of 11 years. Both of these men served disjointed terms with time on and off as PM which I find again...very interesting.

While I am still learning how this constitutional monarchy works, I am amazed that a federal election can be called and held all within a 4+ week time frame. On US political shows, they're already discussing who might run for President in 2016. Yes, 2016 - that's 3 years away! Closer to the date (and year!), the candidates will get scrutinised until the media and America knows the exact number of gray hairs they have and who their first girlfriend was in 6th grade. The final candidates will be rock stars, protected by the Secret Service and travel around the country under tight security with flocks of aides at their side. Meanwhile, back in little Australia (little in population, large in land mass), I see Mr. Abbott at the beach, in his budgie smugglers (see these images ) and at the coffee shop, chatting with the locals like your average Joe. There is no pomp and circumstance, no security. He appears like every one else, enjoying the beach with only an occasional nod. I haven't seen him in Manly lately as he is on the campaign trail. However, if he becomes PM, he will have a small security team and hopefully will chose to wear longer, less revealing swim trunks. At least I hope so.

Some may think since the election is being called so quickly, why bother voting? In the US, voting is voluntary and the voting statistics over the past 50 years shows voter turnout to be between 38-55% of the voting population. In Australia, that number is close to 100% as voting here is compulsory. If you don't vote, you have to pay a fine. I remember when we first moved here and I was driving past our public school on a Saturday. I was gobsmacked (more lingo) wondering why there were so many "parents" coming out of the school on a Saturday morning. Did I miss the school memo? Did something happen? But no, it was an election day; local citizens had come out to vote. I wonder if  US Presidents and in turn, US history would've been different if there was compulsory voting in the US. Then again, with a population of 23 million in Australia and a much smaller voting population (>18 yrs old), it is easier to monitor and fine voters than in the US, with an exponentially larger population of 305 million. Anyway, it is great to seeing people exercising their democratic rights even if they're forced to. Oh wait, that doesn't sound right but either way, I'm glad everyone is voting.

Since voting is compulsory and many public schools serve as polling venues, schools often hold bake sales to raise money. Parents are asked to donate baked items for sale and I have been more than happy to bake for the school. As a baker, this is my sort of fund raising. Given this, I've decided to bake Gluten Free Brownies ("GF") for this blog. GF products are popular in my Sydney suburb. You can easily find GF breads, cereals, pasta, crackers at the regular grocery stores and grocery store giant, Cole's has just introduced their own GF food line. At Coles and other shops, GF brownie mixes are priced from $6-$8. My favourite cafe has GF brownies for $5 a slice....seriously? This is crazy expensive and I'm sure they both wouldn't taste as good as fresh homemade brownies do. So, I decided to experiment with a few recipes and make a good GF recipe from scratch, in my home kitchen.  I call these brownies, "adults-only" since my daughters said these brownies are too strong and not sweet enough. I did use dark chocolate chips, instant coffee and less sugar than my usual brownie recipe. They are rich, delicious and full of flavour. You don't need a big slice to feel satisfied. Then again, I ate 1/2 the pan of GF brownies in 15 hours minus 8 hours of sleep:). I actually cut up the rest and brought them to my neighbour. They are dangerous and taste great plain or with ice cream.


200g Butter/14 tablespoons, chopped into 5 pieces
200g bar/8oz Dark Chocolate (60%+) or Dark Chocolate Chips
1 tsp instant coffee granules
3/4 cup Brown Sugar
1/2 cup White Sugar
1 tbsp Vanilla Extract
1 cup Gluten Free Flour
2 tbsp Cocoa Powder
1 tsp Xanthan Gum (natural stabiliser for GF baking, found at health food store, inexpensive)
3 Eggs
Nuts (optional)

1) Preheat oven to 190C/375F. Grease standard square 8x8in or 18cm brownie pan.

2) In saucepan, melt better, chocolate, instant coffee, brown sugar, vanilla. Keep heat low as you don't want any ingredients to burn. Stir constantly until all ingredients are melted and mixture is glossy and smooth.

Set aside, set timer for *45 minutes* and let cool
(The first time I made these, I didn't let it cool long enough and ruined the brownies)

3) In small bowl, mix together gluten free flour, cocoa and xanthan gum.

4) In mixer or with electric hand beaters, whisk eggs and white sugar for 3 minutes on HIGH until thick and creamy.

5) Add *cooled* chocolate mixture and flour mixture to eggs in 2 batches. Add nuts if using and mix by hand or with beaters on LOW until just blended.
(Too much mixing will result in tougher, less fudgy brownies)

6) Pour into greased pan and bake for 20 minutes. It is often hard to tell if brownies are done. Check to see if the edges are clearly cooked and there may be some cracks across the centre. Give the pan a little jiggle; brownies should be firm. LET COOL FOR AT LEAST 1 HOUR. Taste best when they have been sitting for several hours.

7) Dust with powdered/icing sugar or cocoa. Serve alone or with cream or ice cream.

Monday, 12 August 2013

Sports, Rugby and Worth-the-Wait Spag Bol

about to kick
Nice hat
more hugging....I mean tackling


I love sports. I have been playing some form of sport since I was a little girl. To me, sports are a key element of life. When we moved from the US to Australia, I was happy to see that sports were an integral part of life here as well. Whether your child plays on the Under 6 soccer team or you watch professional sports on TV, Aussies love their sports just like Americans do. However, the professional sports that are followed are not football, hockey, basketball or baseball. The popular pro sports down under are cricket and some form of rugby, all of which I know nothing about. Even now, cricket brings to mind white uniforms, funny hats, wide bats, and competitions that last for days. There are wickets and bowlers and currently an Ashes series. In rugby, there are scrums, hats, carries, tattoos and several different forms of rugby and many levels of competition. While you can get US professional sports here on cable TV, the games are rarely broadcast live due to the significant time change so they are usually shown on TV the next day. With all the social media and online news, you inevitably will see/read about the game result before you even watch it, so why bother? While I was never the type in the US to be glued to the TV watching sports, it's weird not to hear people talking about the pro football, basketball, baseball or ice hockey game that had recently been played. You don't hear about Fantasy Football team selections, who made the Final Four, which Super Bowl commercial was funniest, who should go to the World Series this year, etc. 

After 3+ years of living here, I thought it was time to find out more about sports down under. I had heard that going to a local Club Rugby game (think AA baseball league level) was a great way to spend an afternoon. So we finally went to a Manly Marlins rugby game. I enjoy watching live sporting events as there is lots of people, cheering, excitement and camaraderie going on. Given this, you would think I would've gone to a Rugby game long ago. Especially a rugby game in Manly; after all the town is called "Manly." It seems very appropriate, heh?!

The first thing that struck me as odd was being able to bring canned beer into the venue. Usually at US sporting events, they search your bags for weapons and alcohol. As long as your alcohol was in a can, it was fine to bring in. As we walked around the field to find our friend, I noticed lots of kids running around, playing, throwing balls and having fun. The men were on the sidelines, drinking beer and talking. After we found our friend and settled in, I looked around and saw very few women. I actually felt a bit odd and out of place. When I asked the men I was chatting to where their wives were, they told me that they "had the afternoon off." Then I realised it was a win-win for everyone - kids are at the game playing on the sidelines, Dads are watching the game and drinking beers with their mates and Moms have the afternoon off - sheer genius!

As I watched the game, our Australian friend gave me an in depth commentary on the game, how it is played, the key players, etc. What I took away was the basics - the Marlins play Rugby Union, which is referred to as 'gentlemen's rugby' as opposed to Rugby League which is also popular in Australia but has different rules. Rugby League, like the US NFL, has a system of limited tackles and chances to score while Rugby Union is more fluid and does not. Rugby Union also uses scrums more to restart play. I referred to it as man hugging and the man love play at the game. Probably not a wise choice of words:). I am sure this the tip of the iceberg but that was my basic understanding and a start. 

I will say I was surprised at how loud the players were. The talking, shouting and grunting from the field was impressive. We could even hear them from the street as we were late for the game. I wondered why they didn't use padding. While the Marlins weren't hitting as hard as NFL linebackers do, players were still eating grass with no padding and worse yet, no helmets. I learned their "hats" were to protect their ears and not their brains. If you don't wear a hat, your ears get pulled on and you can get cabbage ears. (see Google Images of 'rugby cabbage ears' = disturbing). I wondered if they wear mouth guards at least; I hope so. As expected, the players were very fit and cut with muscles. Some of the Islander players were just huge. I guess that is true of most high level athletes, I just forget how big and fit they are until you see them up close. There were also some great hairdos and headbands. In the end, the Manly Marlins won and I now have a small clue about Rugby. I know I have have only skimmed the surface, but it's a start. I would definitely go to a game again.

Rugby on a chilly winter afternoon calls for a hearty dinner. A favourite dinner in my Sydney neighbourhood is Spaghetti Bolognese. You know it is popular since it has its' own slang phrase - "Spag Bol." When I am feeling lazy, I brown some ground beef/mince and pour a jar of spaghetti sauce over it and serve it with pasta. When I have time and know I will be home for the afternoon, I make the recipe below. It does take effort but it is really delicious and full of flavour. It also makes the house smell wonderful. It is definitely worth the effort if you have the time.

(Matt Preston's 100 Best Recipes Cookbook)

3 tbsp Olive Oil
2 medium Carrots, finely chopped
3 medium Brown Onions, finely chopped
4 slices middle Bacon, diced into small pieces
2 Celery sticks, finely chopped
1 tbsp Brown Sugar
4 cloves Garlic, crushed
3 tbsp Tomato Paste
1kg/2 lbs Beef Mince/ground Beef
1 cup Red Wine
3 Bay Leaves (optional)
2 Tbsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 tbsp Lemon Juice
2 regular sized tins/cans Tomatoes
1 cup Beef or Vegetable Stock

1) Add Olive Oil to large saucepan and heat until oil thins and spreads; careful not to burn oil.

2) Add onions and cook until translucent about 3-5 minutes. While cooking, cut up carrots, bacon, celery.

3) When onions are cooked, add carrots, bacon and celery. Cook until vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes.

4) Add brown sugar, garlic and tomato paste. Turn up heat slightly and cook about 5 minutes, stirring through.

5) Dump veggies/bacon mixture into a bowl off heat, put aside.

6) Add a little oil olive to pan again and add raw mince/ground beef and cook until browned. Drain fat.

7) Add wine, Worcestershire sauce, lemon juice, tomatoes and stock. Turn up heat slightly and let the mixture simmer for 5-10 minutes.

8) Add veggie/bacon mixture back to the pot with meat mixture and mix well. Add Bay Leaves if using.

9) Bring to the boil covered, then remove lid and turn the heat right down.  Cook very gently for up to 4 hours. Stir occasionally to ensure the sauce doesn't stick and burn. If the sauce gets too thick, add some more stock and stir it in. I like my sauce very thick and hearty, like a ragu or stew.

10) Season with salt or more Worcestershire sauce if needed.

12) Serve over pasta. Enjoy!

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Oodles of Dogs and Snickerdoodles

Cosmo (Cavoodle (L)), Charlie (Spoodle (R))

After my recent visit to the US, I was ready to return to Australia. I missed my ocean views, cooler weather and friends. What I missed most of all was Charlie, our dog. Charlie is a "love bug" and has so many good qualities that he consistently shows to us. He's generally obedient and aims to please, all the time. He offers unconditional love no matter what. He doesn't talk back and is easy to take care of. Just give him some exercise and dog kibble and he is a happy chappy. Charlie makes a fuss over all of us. Whenever any of us come through the front door, Charlie greets us with  a huge welcome as if we have been away for months. Charlie sees the good in everyone and asks for little in return. There is a lot one can learn from dogs.

Charlie is an 18 month-old Spoodle, which is a cross between a Cocker Spaniel and a Poodle. In the US, this type of dog is called a 'Cockapoo'. Who is the brainiac that decided to add 'cock'+'poo' and thought it would be a good name?! A mad housewife....a drunken breeder who thought it was funny? Charlie is part of a growing trend of designer dogs in Australia. A designer dog is a fancy name for a fancy mutt. The differentiation though is that the designer dog must be a cross between 2 purebred dogs. There are many - oodles at my local dog park: Cavoodle (King Charles Cavalier Spaniel X  Poodle), Schnoodle (German Schnauzer X Poodle), Labradoodle (Labrador Retriever X Poodle), Moodle (Maltese X Poodle), Groodle (Golden Retriever X Poddle). The hope of breeders is to combine the non-shedding, low allergy and intelligence of a poodle with the positive aspects of another purebreed dog to create an excellent hybrid. There is controversy here that -oodles are just expensive mutts. Others want them to be accepted and recognised by the AKC since they come from purebred dogs, while others say this can't be as they are a mixed breed.

Oodles and Schnoodles and Spoodles aside, Australians seem to love their dogs. Where I live in Sydney, they're everywhere! As an ex-pat, owning Charlie has been a great way for me to meet more people and feel like I'm part of the community. At our local dog park,  I've met people of all ages and all walks of life. We talk about our dogs, the weather and basically anything that comes to mind that day. It is usually light, easy banter and I enjoy going to the dog park almost as much as Charlie does. According to the Australian Companion Animal Council, Inc., Australia has one of the highest rates of pet ownership in the world with one-third of households owning dogs.  I suspect this number is higher as many dogs are not registered. Local government, councils, require all dogs to be registered and microchipped. Dogs are also encouraged to be de-sexed unless the dog will be bred. Where I live, Manly Council has pages on their website about Pet Ownership and Caring for your Pet. They even hold an annual Dogs Day Out at our local beach, which is this weekend. There will be Obedience, Agility, Best Tricks, Fancy Dress and Look Alike contests. 

I thought of making a dog biscuit or dog  treat but I don't want to focus on canine eating, just humans. So I couldn't resist the rhyming name of Snickerdoodle cookies. These cookies or biscuits, as they are called here, are delicious! They are popular in the US and can be found in most cafes. I grew up making them in my parents' kitchen. I haven't seen them in Australia but I think that the Aussies would like them as they seem to prefer more simple, biscuit like cookies. I would compare Snickerdoodles to a more sophistocated Sugar Cookie due to the addition of cream of tartar which gives the cookies a delightful tang and the cinnamon sugar topping. This is also a kid friendly recipe as my daughters enjoy rolling the dough balls in cinnamon sugar.

adapted from Betty Crocker

1 cup Butter, room temperature

1.5 cups Sugar

2 Eggs

1 tsp Vanilla Extract/Essence

2.75 cups Plain Flour

2 tsp Cream of Tartar - (in baking aisle, usually next to baking powder and baking soda)

1 tsp Baking Soda

1/4 tsp Salt

1/4 cup Sugar + 2 tsps ground Cinnamon

1) Heat oven to 185C/375F

2) Cream Butter and Sugar with mixer or with electric beaters until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes

4) In a separate bowl, combine all dry ingredients - Flour, Cream of Tartar, Baking Soda and Salt.

5) Using mixer or by hand, add dry ingredients to wet ingredients in 3 additions, blending after each addition.

6) Cover bowl with foil and set in the refrigerator for 30-60 minutes, long enough for the cookie dough to harden a bit. 

7) Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix topping of sugar and cinnamon together.

8) Roll cookie dough into small balls and roll them into cinnamon sugar mixture.

9) Bake Snickerdoodles in oven for 10 minutes......enjoy!

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