Monday, 25 November 2013

Movember, Thanksgiving and Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie

Sometimes a small idea blossoms into a great movement. October is  Breast Cancer Awareness month encouraging women to be more aware of breast health and breast cancer. And who can forget all those pink ribbons? In November, there is Movember, which encourages men to grow facial hair and raise money to support men's health issues - prostate cancer, testicular cancer and mental health. I originally thought that this was just an Australian thing as I hadn't heard of it until we moved to the land down under. However, upon closer examination, it has become a worldwide movement that is popular in 20+ countries. And just to think it only started 10 years ago at a bar in Melbourne after a night of drinking and the fear of a rectal exam. Who says advertising in the middle of the night doesn't reach anyone?!
Travis Garone, Movember founder

In 2003, after a night out at a bar, Travis Garone saw a TV advertisement advising men to get checked for prostate cancer. He then Googled prostate cancer to get more information and learnt that it was the second cause of men's death in cancer but has great results if detected early. For his 30th birthday, Garone challenged his friends to grow moustaches (hence "Movember") and compare them. The next November, they got the Prostate Cancer Foundation involved and had a public appeal for men to grow mo's (it's Aussie so it 'moustaches' has to be shortened) and raise money. They raised $54,000 that year, $1.2 million the next year and expect to raise $140 million worldwide this year. Wow! This is the best outcome from a night out drinking that I 've ever heard. He had me at Googling "prostate cancer' in the middle of the night. Who does that? My insomnia (not brought on drinking) consists of stressing about when I'll fall alseep and how will I get through the day so tired. Any attempt at electronics is turning on the TV to see yet again a Seinfeld episode that I have already seen a dozen times, all the while wondering why I even like to watch those selfish superficial characters. Yes, they are funny. I was very inspired reading this story. Go Travis Garone!

I've been amused yet admiring all the swarthy hairy men walking around this month. It is surprising to see a man that you wouldn't think was the facial hair type having a mo, beard or goatee. Even the ones that look bad or a bit suspicious can get away with it - it's for a good cause. Besides, they can always shave it off at the end of the month. I was quietly thrilled that my husband did not grow something this year. For at least half of our marriage, he has had some type of facial hair - a goatee, a soul patch, the bikini wax, a full beard. You name it, he's grown it, shaped it and enjoyed it. We will make our donation hairless which works too.

I am glad that Movember is getting a lot of attention down under because my favourite US holiday, Thanksgiving, is not. Not that it should. I am living in Australia after all. As I had to explain to an American friend back in the US, Thanksgiving is not celebrated here because there wasn't a Mayflower, Pilgrims, Indians, a terrible winter, nor even Thanksgiving like food. And while Halloween is growing down under, I just have to accept that there will never be a Thanksgiving in Australia. When in Rome....

We do celebrate Thanksgiving in our own way here in Sydney. We invite 2 different Australian families to dinner on Thanksgiving Day. They are usually very curious about what the holiday means and eating a traditional turkey with all the fixings. Trying to get the meal together can be an expensive adventure in itself as pecans, cornmeal, stuffing, dried french onions, cranberry sauce, canned pumpkin, and decent gravy can be hard to come by in my neck of the woods. I have to go to various gourmet speciality stores to gather these foods. With fresh turkey selling at $15/pound and $6 for a small can of Libby's pumpkin puree, Thanksgiving dinner is like a Christmas present to the family. This year, I am trying a frozen turkey and keeping my fingers crossed.

We also celebrate another Thanksgiving each year with American ex-pats. It is a potluck meal and we usually meet at the beach to eat, relax, play games and let the kids run around. This year, we celebrated early and seven American families from the area came. They're a nice diverse group of people and we've all become friendly over the past few years, united by our nationality. We're all from different parts of the US and probably wouldn't have met if we were living back in the States.

Carving the Turkey

Yummy Pies

For the ex-pat Thanksgiving, I made a tasty Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie. I grew up with my mother making Pecan Pie, one of my father's favourites. It is delicious and nostalgic for me. My Mom always used the simple and very good recipe on the back of Karo Corn Syrup. Over time, I've adapted the Karo recipe and made my own version of the pie, adding molasses, more vanilla extract, some chocolate chips and whiskey. I really think the small amount of both chocolate chips and whiskey added make the pie "pop" with flavour. They are so subtle that you wouldn't know that there was alcohol nor chocolate in the pie yet they make a huge taste difference. I also have found a pie crust that is excellent and easy to make. In the past, I have been put off by butter pie crusts. I make my crusts by hand and found with butter crusts that you have to get the butter to the right temperature for the crust to work. This crust recipe was given by a friend, Meg, and it is so easy. Of course you can always use a store bought pie crust.

Bourbon Chocolate Pecan Pie 
adapted from Karo Syrup recipe

1.5 cups Flour
1/2 cup Vegetable Oil
1/4 cup Cold Water
dash of salt
* makes 1 bottom crust for "open faced" pie, double if you need a top and bottom crust.*

1 cup Karo Syrup (or Golden Syrup)
3 Eggs, room temperature
3/4 cup of Sugar
2 tablespoons Molasses (or Treacle Syrup)
2 tablespoons Whiskey (Jack Daniels or Irish Whisky works well)
2 tablespoons butter, melted
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1.5 cups of Raw Pecans

1/4 cups Chocolate Chips (semisweet or dark taste best)

1) Preheat oven to 175 C or 350 F.

2) Make Pie Crust. Put all 4 ingredients in bowl. Mix with a fork and knead dough with your hands until it is a ball and all bits of flour have been kneaded through.

3) Using your hands, work crust into the bottom and sides of your pie pan. 

4) Mix all the ingredients except the pecans and chocolate chips together and stir well to combine. Then, add the pecans and stir through so all the pecans are swimming in the batter.

5) Sprinkle Chocolate Chips on bottom of pie crust.

6) Pour pie batter into crust.

7) Place pie on top of cookie sheet in center of your oven and bake for 60-70 minutes. Cool at least  2 hours before serving. Serve on its own or with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

- Use raw pecans as they will get naturally toasted in the oven.

- Sometimes the pie edges get burned during long cooking time. If they look like they are burning, put some foil along the edges. 

- It is important to put the pie on a cookie sheet because if it overflows while cooking, it is difficult to clean your over; a real sugary sticky mess. 

- It is often tricky to know if is done cooking. The pie should still be a little jiggly/soft in the middle. You do not want to overcook it. Cook in the center of your oven 

Monday, 11 November 2013

The Melbourne Cup and Smoked Trout Dip

The first Tuesday in November is Australia's Melbourne Cup, billed "the horse race that stops the nation". Imagine the US Kentucky Derby on speed and with the whole country watching. What a great way to spend Tuesday, a usually boring day of the week and kick off the upcoming holiday season. The state of Victoria, where it is held, has a public holiday so no one has to go to work or school and they can enjoy the festivities. In Sydney, where I live, many people 'chuck a sickie' more lingo for call in sick to work. If they do work, many work a shorter day and leave early to watch the race at 3pm. Some offices have a corporate function at a restaurant or bar. This year, I went to a friend's house for a party full of lovely canapes, champagne and some fund raising. 

The Melbourne Cup is known for its fashion and especially its fancy hats, called 'fascinators.' Stores all over the country stock hats and headbands for ladies to wear with their Cup dresses. There are many other horse races before the actual Melbourne Cup at 3pm so people tune in to see Australia's rich and famous and check out the fascinators. 

With my fascinator headband and
fascinator cupcakes

Dita von Teese (L) and model Coco Rocha look on during judging of Myer Fashions on the Field during Melbourne Cup Day at Flemington Racecourse on November 5, 2013 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images for the VRC)

So besides the fashion and festivities, what is the Melbourne Cup? The horse race has been running since 1861 by the Victoria Racing Club on the Flemington Racecourse in Melbourne, Victoria. Every year, the race is held on the first Tuesday in November at 3 pm. The Melbourne Cup is Australia's major thoroughbred horse race for 3+ year-old horses and it's the richest two-mile handicap race in the world. To get the handicap of each horse, the weight of the jockey and his/her riding gear is adjusted with ballast to a nominated figure. Older horses carry more weight than younger ones, and weights are adjusted further according to the horse's previous results.Weights were theoretically calculated to give each horse an equal winning chance in the past, but in recent years the rules were adjusted to a "quality handicap" formula where superior horses are given less severe weight penalties than under pure handicap rules.

Horses from all over the world come to compete and over $6 million in prize money is up for grabs. Each year, approximately 300 to 400 horses are nominated while only 24 make the field as starters. Winning certain races, such as the previous year’s Melbourne Cup, the Cox Plate or the Caulfield Cup, grants a horse with automatic entry into the Melbourne Cup and that horse is exempt from the ballot. The current record holder is Kingston Rule, who won the 1990 Melbourne Cup with a time of 3 minutes and 16.3 seconds. Wow! That is a fast 2 mile run!(sources:,

The Melbourne Cup creates big business. According to the Daily Telegraph newspaper, it was expected that $60 million dollars was spent on gambling, $162 million on food and beverage and $47 million on fashion and beauty. In a country of 22 million people, that is a lot of money! The 2013 winner was Fiorente. It was a sweet win for Australia as the both the jockey, Damien Oliver, and trainer, Gai Waterhouse, are Australian. She is the first female Australian trainer to win the Melbourne Cup and this is Damien Oliver third time winning the race. (photos:

With a classy event like the Melbourne Cup and the holiday season on the way, this week's recipe is a Smoked Trout Dip. I *love* this recipe. It is delicious, easy, healthy and upscale for any event. With the lemon and parsley in it, I find it light and refreshing. I try to share recipes that can be customised to suit individual tastes. This is especially true of the this dip. You can change and vary ALL of the ingredients to suit your taste buds. You can also make it with salmon; see my notes below. I like this recipe so much that it never goes to waste, even if there are leftovers. I simply put some on toast or in a wrap with lettuce and eat it for lunch - enjoy!


300grams/10 ounces Smoked Trout
1/3+ cup Sour Cream
1 lemon, juiced
2+ teaspoons horseradish (a must)
1/2 bunch of parsley, chopped (save some for garnish)
salt, pepper

1) Assemble ingredients.

2) Cut up fish, and use hands to gather all the smoked trout bits.
Be careful to remove any small bones.

3) Add juice of 1 lemon and horseradish. Stir.

4) Add Sour Cream and stir through.

5) Chop up parsley and stir through. How easy is that?!

6) Serve with crackers or a baguette.

THIS DIP IS HIGHLY CUSTOMISEABLE - you can add or more less of anything to suit your taste. I like a lot of lemon and parsley as it makes the dip refreshing. I also like it with less sour cream. It can easily be doubled or tripled. Light sour cream works fine too.

To make a SMOKED SALMON DIP - substitute salmon for trout and dill for parsley.

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Halloween down under and Jackaroo Pie

We just celebrated Halloween here in Australia. Well at least some people did. Unlike the US, Halloween is not celebrated by everyone. I didn't know this when I moved here. I had a very naive American assumption that if the US celebrated Halloween, then Australia did too. Some Aussies celebrate Halloween but it is optional and can be based on the region you live in or even a specific neighbourhood. 2013 is my fourth Halloween here in Sydney and I  noticed that Halloween was very popular this year with more costume and candy displays in the stores than ever before. Even my local grocery store had a whole Halloween area, which I don't recall seeing in the past.

Australia and the US share most of the same holidays but sometimes on different dates. My favourite, Thanksgiving, is not celebrated at all while Halloween is gaining momentum here despite some controversy. While some people think that dressing up and eating candy is fun, others don't understand the holiday and why they should celebrate it down under. In my local paper, the Manly Daily, a woman interviewed summed up her negativity pretty well, "Call me a miserable old witch, but I don't like the whole concept of Halloween, I never have and never will. It's an out of control American tradition that has become so ingrained in our children's lives. Are we that culturally poor that we can't have our own traditions? Every year, Halloween gets bigger - make that more commercialised - with the growing pressure to fork out an assortment of plastic junk......." I don't get the 'plastic junk' part but she otherwise sums up well how some Australians feel about Halloween. There are also some religious schools that tell the children that Halloween is a devil's holiday and very bad; no one should celebrate Halloween. That comment sure didn't make my daughter feel good nor me a happy parent.

So what is Halloween and why after celebrating it my whole life do I not know too much about it? They had me at the dressing up and eating candy part so the details seemed irrelevant. It reminds me a bit of  our first year here when there was an Easter Parade at our public school. Coming from a country where there is a separation between church and state, I was a bit shocked that there'd be an Easter Parade at our public school. I even asked one mother if she was religious and what she thought of the Parade. Her reply was something to the effect of, 'No, I am not religious but I don't care, the kids are having a great time in their Easter hats and singing. It's a fun day for them and the school.' My kind of gal!

So what are we celebrating here? Boy, is there a lot of information on the Internet about Halloween. In a nutshell, Halloween is an ancient holiday that has evolved over time. Thousands of years ago, at the end of autumn before dreaded winter came and you could possibly die of hunger or freeze to death, Celts would gather in hopes of communicating with their deceased loved ones. They feasted and invited their (hopefully) heavenly ancestors to come to their party and ward off any evil-doers who might be planning to visit them in the coming year. They wore masks and costumes so that bad spirits who might decide to visit them wouldn't recognise them. Halloween marked a time when the Celts believed that the barrier between this world and the next was an open portal for spirits to come back for an earthly visit, and a time when mortals could send messages to the Gods and the deceased. Over time, the Catholic Church wanted to convert more pagans to Christianity and made Halloween, all hallows' Eve, the night before the holy day, All Saints Day on November 1. Irish immigrants brought the tradition of Halloween to the US in the 1800s. The practise of giving out candy, trick-or-treating, came from when the poor would walk door to door on Halloween receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Saints Day. There is a lot more information out there but I wouldn't bore you just look online for more detail.

In my neighbourhood,  Halloween is a big block party. There is one long and wide street that is closed off by the police and only residents' cars are able to drive through. The street is flooded with children and some adults dressed up, trick-or-treating, and socialising. Some parents even bring a picnic dinner or bottle of wine and sit on the grass and relax with adult friends while their children go to houses on their own. Because it is spring here and doesn't get dark until much later, houses may have a balloon outside or a decoration to indicate that they'll welcome kids and have lollies (candy). I noticed many homeowners stood outside at the sidewalk with a bowl of candy to give out. I sometimes tell people that one of the reasons I like living in Australia is that I see a high level of "social decency." When asked to explain what I mean beyond general good manners and doing the right thing, it is often hard to explain. Well one example I saw on Halloween was strangers giving homeowners bags of candy. I asked someone why she was giving was a bag of candy to a homeowner and she said that she wanted to help contribute since so many people came to that street. I saw this happen at several house - very decency. 

How could I write a blog on Halloween and not bake something sweet? Well I didn't! Last blog, there were Berry Crumble muffins so this blog I wanted a savoury dish. Before trick-or-treating you want a good, easy, nutritious meal on your stomach. At least I wanted my girls to get something healthy before they ate all that candy!  And why not make the dish very Australian since this American has been spreading Halloween.

Jackaroo Pie is a recipe from Masterchef host and food writer, Matt Preston. I really like his Matt Preston's 100 Best Recipes cookbook. It is a great book of everyday recipes and his larger than life personality comes through in the recipe introductions. I featured a lamb dish from this cookbook earlier this year in my February blog. Jackaroo Pie is an Australian take on Shepherd's Pie. Both my husband and I grew up eating Shepherd's Pie, a casserole layered with sauteed ground beef, peas and potatoes on top. In Jackaroo Pie,  ground lamb/lamb mince, one of Australia's biggest exports, is used along with Vegemite to flavour the pie.

A 'Jackaroo' is a man working on  cattle or sheep station; a 'Jillaroo' is a female. The Australian band, Men at Work, made Vegemite famous world wide with their hit song, 'Land Down Under.' Vegemite is a salty concentrated yeast and barley malt extract that is high in  vitamin B. It is so strong and salty, that only a small thin layer is needed on toast or sandwiches. Vegemite is an acquired taste. I actually like it spread thinly on bread and then topped with cheese and toasted in a toaster oven. Promite and Marmite are British substitutes for Vegemite. I scanned the Internet to see if there are good substitutes for Vegemite and I couldn't find one. I suggest you get a small jar from your local gourmet or import grocery. I have also suggested substitutes in my notes below.

Jackaroo Pie
adapted from Matt Preston's 100 Best Recipes cookbook

3 tablespoons Olive Oil
500g/1lb Lamb Mince/Ground Lamb
6 Spring Onions
1.5 cups Frozen Peas
2 tablespoons tomato ketchup
1 tablespoon Worcestershire Sauce
2 teaspoons Vegemite or Promite or Marmite (see notes)
1.5 cups of Beef Stock
2 cups Mashed Potatoes (potatoes, milk, butter)
1/2 cup Grated Parmesan or other sharp, dense cheese Pana Grandano, Pecorino

1. Start cooking potatoes and preheat oven to 175 C/ 350 F.

2. Heat 2 tablespoons of Olive Oil in large skillet. When oil is hot and spreading thin, whirl pan. Add lamb mince and stir until browned. Lamb can be fatty so be sure to drain the fat, juices. Stir in Vegemite until blended through. Spoon mixture into bowl and set aside.

3. Take spring onions and  cut off white part. Chop whites into small pieces.

4. Add a little olive oil back to pan and heat. Add chopped spring onion whites and saute until softened, 3-4 minutes.

5. Add frozen peas, ketchup, Worcestershire sauce and stir through. Add meat mixture and beef stock into pan and stir to combine.

6. While meat mixture is simmering, make mashed potatoes to your liking. (Mashed potatoes are tricky - people are picky with their choice of butter, milk, salt, etc......I'll leave it to you). Chop up leftover greens from spring onions and stir through mashed potatoes. 

7. In casserole pan, add meat mixture and spread mash potatoes on top. Add grated cheese and any other seasoning you like. I added mild paprika and black pepper along with the cheese.

8. Cook in oven for 30 minutes.

- Lamb is very fatty so it is important to drain fat when you are browning the meat.
- If you can't find Vegemite/Marmite/Promite, add an additional 1-2 tablespoons of Worcestershire Sauce and/or 1-2 teaspoons of concentrated beef stock in a jar.


Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Australian Bushfires and Berry Crumble Muffins

I had written a blog on a different topic but I'll save that one for another time since there are bushfires burning out of control in New South Wales, the state I live in. Growing up in New York State and later living in northern California, I didn't  have to worry about bushfires. Fires happened in other parts of California and in other states far away. Since they were not a concern of my daily living, I was not very concerned with them. This is sad but true and not surprising as we are all so busy putting out our own "fires" everyday.

This year has been the sunniest and nicest weather since we moved down under almost 4 years ago. I'd been hearing about bushfires on the news but again they weren't nearby so they didn't feel tangible to me. That was until last week when the air looked gray, brown and smoggy. It was a very hot day with lots of hot blustery wind. I'd closed the windows in the house to keep the heat out. When I went upstairs, I smelled smoke. I ran to all the bedrooms, thinking there might be a fire somewhere in the house. No fire, thank goodness. I then entered my bathroom, which was the only room with the windows open. There was the smoky smell and ashes in the bathroom sink. The ashes in the sink really threw me for a loop and the reality of bushfires then hit home. It turns out the fires were over 1+ hour away but the winds were so strong that they were blowing smoke and soot across Sydney. Outside, the air was thick with smoke and some ash flurries floated by. The sky looked very scary and ominous, like something out of a doomsday movie.

eerie view out my window

Smoke from bushfires fill the sky over the city in Sydney
Smoke haze over Sydney,
Luckily, I live on the coast and I am not in the same danger as dry inland areas. However, we do live near several wooded parks, that if they caught on fire, could cause damage to the area. In doing some research, bushfires are a way of life in Australia. In fact the Australian National Geographic journal states that fire has an integral role to play in organising vegetation, biodiversity, and other functions of the Australian landscape. The probability that a bush fire may occur, is dependent on a variety of environmental factors. In the central grasslands and tropical savannahs, excessive rain brings growth of new plants and grasses. When the weather turns drier and the plants die back, there is much fodder for a fire. Sydney is in the eastern coast of Australia and only prone to bushfires during periods of drought. Since I've lived here, there has been some variation of El Nino, El Nina or some other Mexican cousin so bushfires have not been a concern. This year, 2013, has been a lovely, sunny and generally dry year. With less rain, the vegetation is now dried out and we have had many hot very windy days which have led to fires.

To better alert the country to fire dangers, a standardised Fire Danger Rating was adopted by all Australian states in 2009. During the fire season the Bureau of Meteorology provides fire weather forecasts and makes predictions based on temperature, relative humidity, wind speed and dryness of vegetation. From this, fire agencies determine the appropriate Fire Danger Rating. They are a feature of weather forecasts are broadcast via newspapers, radio, TV, internet and on roads.
As I typed this, I just checked Yahoo! news and there are 62 fires burning across New South Wales with 13 of them uncontained. The Premier has declared a state of emergency. In the Blue Mountains, which is about 2+ hours away, there are 2 fires burning in separate areas but the firefighters fear they might merge and join one giant fire due the dry, windy conditions. The fires are being fought by the NSW Rural Fire Service a mostly volunteer group of firefighters. Tony Abbott, the new Prime Minister, is a member of the volunteer group and has been surveying the fires and helping to fight them. What a great photo op for a politician, eh?
Prime Minister, Tony Abbott
With little rain predicted and unpredictable fires, I am somehow optimistically hoping these fires go away. The destruction and loss of people, wildlife and property is really depressing. I can't imagine losing my family, dog, house, car, land, etc. to a fire. The summer hasn't even started so it looks like there may be dire times ahead. I am hoping one of the Mexican weather patterns come
Well a (depressing) blog about fire should have a hot and spicy dish. Unfortunately, I don't have one as my family likes quite mild food. I do enjoy spicy food, especially hot Thai and Asian dishes. I've noticed when I go out to a restaurant and eat a spicy Asian dish lately, that I get really bad headaches. I think that I may have a MSG allergy. I now turn over most packaged food to see if they have any foods with a 600+ number as these numbers are flavour enhancers and MSG related. In looking more closely at ingredients, I have been shocked to see how many food products are just full of all different numbers and colours; very processed. Because of this, I have started to cook more homemade, wholesome goodies for my daughters. One new recipe that is popular in our household is Berry Crumble Muffins. They are healthy, wholesome and easy to make. 

Berry Crumble Muffins

2.5 cups of Self-Raising Flour

1 cup Brown Sugar, packed

2 Eggs

7 tablespoons/100grams Butter, melted

1 cup Buttermilk (*see notes*)

2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract/Essence

1 heaping cup of Frozen or Fresh Berries (*see notes*)

3 tablespoons Butter
4 tablespoons Flour
3 tablespoons Sugar
2 tablespoons Oats
1 teaspoon cinnamon

1) Preheat oven to 190C/375F. Melt butter in microwave and let cool slightly.

2) In medium bowl, mix together dry ingredients: flour and sugar. Use a fork to break up any clumps in brown sugar.

3)  In another bowl, mix eggs, buttermilk and vanilla extract/essence together.

4) Once liquid is mixed through, add melted butter and stir through.

5) Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix through with a spatula, scraping any flour bits on the side and bottom of bowl.

6) Add berries and gently stir through, just blending. Batter will be very thick, which is ok. Don't not overmix as overmixing results in denser, tougher muffins.

7) Grease 12-hole muffin pan or use paper liners. Use ice cream scooper or spoon and fill each cup 3/4 of the way full.

8) Once tray is full, make crumble topping. Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and knead together with your hands into a crumb mixture.

9) Sprinkle crumb mixture on top of muffin batter and put tray into oven.

10) Cook for 20-22 minutes.

~ Frozen berries work well as they don't "run" and discolour the batter like fresh ones do. They are also available all year round There is no need to thaw frozen berries before using for this recipe. Simply add frozen berries directly to the muffin batter.

~ Be sure to mix by hand for better texture and height to your muffin.
~ If you don't have buttermilk on hand, you can add 1 tsp of vinegar OR lemon juice to 1 cup of milk and let it sit out for at least 30 minutes before using. You can also use plain yogurt as a substitution for buttermilk.

Special design for SuzyQ Under Down by GeCe