Monday, September 28, 2009
I used to think marshmallows were the most lifeless sweets around - it often felt like they were made by insulation experts, and not confectioners setting sugar and gelatine into little squares of magic (and dental havoc).
Then I had artisan marshmallows – and realised it's not even in the same orbit as the tragic packing foam that is sold on most supermarket shelves.
The first fancy marshmallows I had were as petits fours in really shmick restaurants – the passionfruit ones at Rockpool and Bentley, the green tea versions at Tetsuya's – but it wasn't until Sweetness The Patisserie that I had proper jumbo-sized mallows that were pillowy, soft, stretchy, pull-apart-able and buffered with full-volumed flavour.
Sophie lives close to the store in Epping and treated me to my first Sweetness mallow earlier this year – it was a Cherry and Coconut single-pack and I remember it tasting like a luxury version of a Cherry Ripe – it was a real moment-stopper. Then I made Will trek to Epping (from Bronte) to pick up bundles of mallows when he needed food props for his last lighting class (he never ended up shooting them, but we enjoyed eating the soft lime, raspberry and passionfruit squares in his kitchen).
More recently, unable to outsource my Sweetness fix to anyone else, I caught the train to Epping to stock up on a few bags. The patisserie is on a quiet street right near the station and the atmosphere inside is really charming – in a jokey way, I'd say it's sort of "Bowral meets of South of France": there's iron-wrought furniture, treats under glass domes, and a rustic clock and a vase of gum leaves above a country-style wooden shelf.
Behind the counter, you get a front-row view of apron-wearing staff prepping trays and working on sweets. It's a nice, intimate space that has old-school flourishes – it's worth a visit even if your Sweetness treats are available at a local market.
So, thanks to this place, I've gone through a bit of marshmallow reform – from non-fan to someone who swears loyalty to about every flavour on the shelves. My favourites are the zesty lime; the sweet, zingy raspberry; the subtle coffee; and the gorgeous, gorgeous chocolate. In prying a packet of the latter open, an aroma-cloud of cocoa hits you – and just that choc-thick fragrance is dreamy on its own.
One dinner, Will and I decided to go halves on mallows and it was super-fun to see these springy, thick confections slowly give way as we pulled them apart. These aren't sweets that disappear or melt to nothing, they're beautifully sinkable and worth lingering over.
Sweetness courts sweet-tooths in other ways – there are muffins, nougat and cakes on display – but the idea of a shop that masters marshmallows is a unique one. I wanted to find out more about how it came to happen, so I had a chat with Gena Karpf, the person behind it all.
Why a marshmallow boutique in Epping?
"I live in Castle Hill and wanted to make a statement that you can get good, unique food in the outer areas of Sydney, that you're not forced to go into the city, Surry Hills, Glebe," she says. "If you think of the overall Sydney area, it's a pretty central location. I don’t want to drive any further than I have to and I love the building."
The effort she sunk into the shop was immense. "We had a budget of $100,000 and ended up spending $266,000. A good portion of that was capital works on a building that I don’t own."
Other reasons that directed her to 38 Oxford Street, Epping – one, it's very close to the station and two, it was near the Cordon Bleu school where Gena was studying at. "That’s where life took me," she explains.
How many marshmallows emerge from the kitchen?
"There are 40-80 productions in a week. They have to sit overnight and it's repetitive. The making and cutting we try not to make happen on a Friday, because we go to markets on the Saturday. There are 70 marshmallows a production – so that's 2400-4800 marshmallows a week."
What's the most difficult thing about making marshmallows?
"Texture is harder than flavour. In a bowl, you can create something that tastes great. Aeration is different – raspberry is difficult and mango, too, the pulp gets in the way of aeration. The key is maintaining texture while having the right flavour profile. We did a pinot noir marshmallow, which was very successful. We tried a champagne one [and in trying to translate the fizziness and lightness], it didn’t work.
"We use fruit purees and juices, and we don’t use any preservatives and we don’t know what one looks like. It means the marshmallows have a short shelf life.
"With age, marshmallows get crystally and grainy. My friend brought some back from Paris – and [because they had aged], they were so disappointing!"
What are the most popular marshmallows?
"Passionfruit, passionfruit, passionfruit. And lime – people who like passionfruit also like lime, they tend to be people who have bolder palates. We sell a lot of raspberry and strawberry because they’re pink and people buy on colour."
You were working at IBM when you first started experimenting with marshmallows. Can you remember that original batch you made?
"It was a recipe from the Cooking For Engineers website. I thought, 'what if you use strawberry puree or lemon juice instead of water?' and that's when my exploration began, in 2006, during my basic term at Le Cordon Bleu. I started to play around with flavours. The first ones I made were passionfruit – and that first time, I knew it was something special, stunning."
What do you think of the marshmallows that are served as petits fours in fancy restaurants, like Rockpool?
"They're so tiny – they're decorative, complimentary, they exist for an entirely different reason. Our marshmallows aren't just an accompaniment to a dessert. But if these [restaurant marshmallows] were a stand-alone item and something you could sink your teeth into, I would expect the quality to stand up.
"We do make a mini marshmallow, only because people ask for them; they're good for kids. I wouldn’t start with the mini because the joy is in the texture – in one bite you don’t get the whole flavour hit. The big ones are more true to the marshmallow we want to meet."
Do you find yourself sizing up whatever you happen to be eating as a potential new marshmallow flavour?
"The answer is no. We already do about 20 different flavours. If I just had a beautiful Turkish delight in a Lebanese restaurant, I would think, 'let’s do that rosewater marshmallow one again.'
"It can be confusing if there's too many flavours – it’s difficult for customers. More is not better.
"Currently, we've got a Mixed Fruit (with guava, banana and other ingredients) but people are going to buy raspberry over mixed fruit.
"There's Espresso Cardamom and Blueberry and Blood Orange today, which won an award at Sydney Royal, which we’d like to promote. Choc-covered Peppermint also won."
Besides the Christmas range in November – which will include Gingerbread and Peppermint – what are other flavours you want to work on next?
"Summer fruits – such as lychee, mango, cherries – that’s what we want to focus on.
"I’d also like to do a pumpkin marshmallow in the tradition of American Thanksgiving. I’m not entirely sure if that will be successful – Australians aren't used to pumpkin as a sweet ingredient. And technically, it’s a challenge – pumpkin has a lot of texture – and aerating it will be a challenge.
You talked previously about how it's important not to have too many flavours. How much is too much?
"5-8 flavours is about right. And with macarons, I never want to have eight types of macarons in the store – three is the right balance, manageable.
"And if you come in and want the lemon poppyseed macaron that was sold last week, or if you say you'd like the raspberry choc muffins with strudel on top, without raspberry – maybe next time, when we do our batch, we can set aside six for you.
"It’s a luxury that we’re able to work like that, because we are so small."
Sweetness The Patisserie, 38 Oxford Street, Epping NSW (02) 9869 3800, www.sweetness.com.au (see website for local market locations as well).
Sunday, September 20, 2009
The good thing about being sick is getting to laze out with noodle soups for a week. The bad thing is wearing out your favourite ramen recipe.
So I switched it up this morning and I made breakfast couscous instead. I took the basics from here – boil 1 cup fruit juice and one tbsp honey, stir in 1 cup of grains – but ditched most of the following instructions (including the blatant name-brand plugs) and just fanned in banana slices and blueberries, drizzled a lot of passionfruit over everything and finished off with toasted almond flakes. So easy!
It's a summery dish, which matched the sun-saturated day very sweetly. Until, of course, the weather went a little wacko (suddenly, it was grey and rainy). That's Sydney for you, though, with the elements sending more mixed signals than an unreadable first date. Sort of made me feel glad to be stuck inside.
Normal posting to resume soon (as long as my immune system lives up to that part of the promise - I think it will).
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
This is my version of the absentee notes you gave to teachers in school, stapled with a medical certificate and signed off by your parents to show that yes, you really were propped up in bed, not feeling well at all.
Hence the lack of updates here.
It's totally my fault, 'cos only last week, I said to Beth that I'd amazingly skated through autumn and winter without getting sick. And then spring hits and bam, here I am, surrounded by tissues and having rebought another jar of honey 'cos I'd used up the last one in a flash.
A few years ago, I read this on the nutrition blog on SMH, when findings were made that combining echinachea and vitamin C could prevent the chances of getting a cold by almost 60 per cent:
When the first hint of a scratchy throat and runny nose appeared late last Thursday, I followed the same action plan I've used for years to head off a cold – taking echinacea, garlic and vitamin C three times a day. Call it coincidence – or maybe the placebo effect - but by Friday the throat was less inflamed and by Saturday, roughly 36 hours after the first symptom appeared, it was back to normal.
I actually started following that cold-battling regime and found it really makes a mega difference. It's not a superpill but often, if I follow it consistently, I won't get sick at all, and if I do, it's a lot milder than the times I've been out for a week from a full-blown horror cold.
I also find lots of ginger & honey is soothing and gargling with lukewarm saltwater comes in handy (the latter is doctor's advice I used to always ignore, jumping to the hard drugs first). I don't want to sound like a quack and I'm definitely no stethoscope-slinging doc, but these are just personal talismans that do work for me.
Sick note signed and delivered.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
I've almost caught up on blogging about all the things I chatted about on Anna Burns' excellent Weekend Lunch show on FBI 94.5FM on Saturday.
Just have to cover Sweetness patisserie in Epping, which is quite the marshmallow mecca. Sadly, I won't have time to do that until later in the week, but to keep you sated, here is some spongey eye candy from the store as a placeholder …
Like a very incriminating receipt you excavate from your pants when doing laundry – timestamping the last time you actually gave the pair a clean – I must admit I've had this review scrunched up in my pocket for a while.
It's kinda silly and I can't quite explain it (the same way it's hard to argue your way out of a three-month movie ticket in your jeans), although it seems a sorta adequate segue into this squeezy and very excellent hang-out.
Pocket Bar in Darlinghurst lives up to all the good parts of its namesake (cosy, easy to pack out with fine things, hidden away, and endlessly useful), without any of the downfalls (like vintage lint, for example).
The space avoids the flashy, soulless designer-everything look and instead goes for a decor I'd call "share-house chic": it's full of shambolic, nicely worn-in furniture and oddball flourishes (doll's heads, random book volumes). It's highly personable and likeable in that way.
As is the menu, which slightly re-tips the balance of Sydney's lopsided cuisine selection; to counter the 10 million Thai restaurants, Pocket offers something very under-represented in this city: crepes. Crisp, warm and pressed with plenty of melted, stringy cheese inside (all savoury options come with tasty cheddar or the more softer, not-so-stringy goat's cheese, as well as parent-pleasing servings of salad).
My favourite is the Field Mushroom and Spinach ($9.50), which I could eat repeatedly, but I also like the Ratatouille with Goat's Cheese ($11.50). Other options include the Spiced Red Capsicum and Creme Fraiche ($13.50) and the Herbed Chicken and Creme Fraiche ($14.50), the latter which Will quite liked.
As a nice bookend, there are also dessert crepes, starting from Honey and Lemon ($7.50), if you feel like being polite and restrained, to the more decadent Berries, Banana and Chocolate ($12), which is, of course, what we hoed right into.
The prices are incredibly reasonable (you could, easily, get a savoury and sweet crepe for around $20 if you feel a bit pursestring-tight), although that's obviously countered by the drinks bill (I got slugged $5 for a small glass of Lemon, Lime and Bitters on my last visit).
The only other slightly Pocket-critical things I can think of are:
1) the billing system is a little weird (pay as you go – which feels a tad disruptive when you're dining at a table – or you can leave your credit card with staff to settle the bill right at the end) and 2) it can pack out really quickly and often, which isn't the bar's fault, really a sign that you should be an earlybird if you want to get fed there. (In fact, you can go really early: they do pancakes all day, from breakfast.)
Otherwise, I feel pretty happy and grateful that this place exists. This squeezy bar with its comfy sofas and ever-tasty line-up of crepes is an address you need to pocket.
Pocket Bar, 13 Burton St, Darlinghurst (corner of Burton and Crown Streets), NSW (02 9380 7002, www.pocketbar.com.au
Photo of rhurbarb and almond tarts by Will Reichelt, during one of the many occasions we've hung around Bourke Street Bakery
As you may know, there is a new Bourke Street Bakery cookbook. It's a hefty volume (big enough to knock someone out with, if you want to ruin a perfectly good cookbook with a bit of brain) and includes recipes for all your favourites from this Sydney institution: the Chocolate Mousse Tarts, Lamb & Harissa Sausage Rolls, and the many seed-studded and herb or veg-bolstered sourdough loaves. They're all in there except for the blissfully good White Chocolate and Raspberry Muffins (although the dark choc equivalent is in there, so go figure). There are also recipes for sweets that aren't on sale in the Surry Hills, Marrickville and Alexandria stores, and gluten-free and other dietary alternatives are covered, too.
Pages from the Bourke Street Bakery cookbook
In honour of this, I asked the super-talented Brendan King, a former pastry chef at BSB, for his memories of working the ovens and pots there. He was also a presenter at FBi and taught me how to use a radio panel back in January 2006; now he hosts a show for ABC in Gippsland, VIC. But his recollections at the bakery are pretty strong and I started off asking him about the hardest recipes to cook there ...
One of the worst things to make was the meat pie mix. The flavours are great but we used to have two or three MASSIVE 120-litre pots on the stove filled to the brim with this hot pie mix and trying to stir with these huge wooden spoons was crazy. We'd have to stand on milk crates to get right over the pot and stir in the corners and you'd be working in what felt like a really small area because of the size of the pots and all the boxes of veg to be cut up. It was a tiring area to work in, on the stoves. Now at the Marrickville site, I hear they have a 300-litre steam kettle that has its own mechanical stirring spoon or something.
Then there's the lamb and harisa sausage rolls. Insane. I still tell everybody about them. Sausage rolls are a bugger to make and probably one thing that I hated making because it usually came at the end of the day. We'd have to clear all the benches and they were all covered in pastry. Then we'd have to mix all the mince whether it was lamb, chicken or pork and pipe it onto the very long strips of pastry. Then roll them up and put them on trays. Not a lot of fun when you've just spent the day moulding and weighing up heavy bread dough. It went down a treat though when I reheated the one my partner Catherine brought back yesterday.
We used to get a loaf of bread to take home a day. More if you were around at closing time. And I had just come back to Australia and was still extremely broke trying to get out of debt. I LIVED on bread for over a year.
I remember starting at Bourke Street around 4am and finishing work then going and do some stuff at FBi, then going home thinking, "what am I going to have to eat for dinner? Ah, the same thing as last night - TOAST!"
But I didn't get sick of it. In fact, I still crave a slice every now and then. I got Catherine to bring me home a sandwich as well the other day. The lamb, quince paste and fennel sambo is killer. I ate it as I drove my family from the airport and thought this is what life's about. Family and the best sandwich I've eaten all year!!
Saturday, September 5, 2009
Just been on Anna Burns' great Weekend Lunch show on FBI 94.5FM talking about sweet treats for Spring.
We talked about Sweetness, the patisserie that is best-known for its shelves of artisan marshmallows, located on Oxford Street in Epping.
And Bacco in Chifley Plaza.
And Pocket Bar in Darlinghurst.
And the new Bourke Street Bakery cookbook!
Expect a proper update with addresses and details when I get home and go through my notebook scribbles and photos.