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Thursday, October 23, 2014

Brutti ma buoni Italian hazelnut biscuits + white bean dip recipes for the "bring a plate" dilemma

Char-grilled octopus by John from heneedsfood

Bring a plate. Those three little words that are guaranteed to make my hands go clammy and my heart start to race. Because we all want to bring something faaaaaa-bulous to a gathering with friends, don't we? Something that's tasty, can be made in advance and will transport well. A dish that won't cost you half your pay packet or chain you to the kitchen for 42 hours straight.

That's why I was pretty darn pleased when I finally settled on two dishes I could bring along to John's casual get-together last weekend. Cooking for friends is fine, but cooking for fellow food bloggers can be pretty intimidating. And that was before it was decided we should follow a theme. "Let's make it Mediterranean/Adriatic!" and soon my inbox is flooding with excited nominations of exotic dishes that will be made while I rock to and fro nervously in a corner.

I kid, of course. I just rocked to and fro in my chair.

But you know what? We all know that no friend is going to judge you on your food. I ended up bring white bean dip with crostini (super easy!) and brutti ma buoni, Italian hazelnut biscuits that live up to their "ugly but good" translation. Recipes for both are at the end of this post, but read on to see what everyone else brought along!

Smoked nuts by John from heneedsfood
John's home smoked nuts with salt and nigella seeds

We arrived to nibbles of mixed nuts smoked in John's newest toy, the Anuka smoker. The effect is phenomenal, giving the nuts an intense smokiness that reminds us of eating bacon cheetos. In a good way.

John setting up grapes on the Anuka smoker
John setting up grapes on the Anuka smoker

John picked up his smoker on eBay but we pump him with so many questions, it feels like a product demo. Basically it's an electric hot smoker that uses granulated wood chips set over an element burner. The temperature is fixed at 190C and a timer allows you to pre-set smoking durations from 10 to 60 minutes.

Lifting the smoker lid after fifteen minutes
Lifting the smoker lid after fifteen minutes

We crowd around like little kids watching John set up the smoker for grapes. After fifteen minutes, there's an audible "ding" just like a microwave, indicating that the smoking is complete. We all want one by now, although they come at a pretty price. It's $289 although it looks like you can pick them up on eBay for $185.

The grapes are for our cheese plate, and they're left to cool while we start lunch.

My white bean dip with crostini
My white bean dip with crostini

We kick off with my white bean dip with homemade crostini. I made these on Friday and they kept perfectly until Sunday. Garlicky with a zing of lemon and a background hint of rosemary, this was blitzed in the food processor in about three minutes. The crostini was made from a sourdough baguette.

John's paštetu od cvaraka or pork scratching pate on Iggy's bread
John's paštetu od cvaraka or pork scratching pate on Iggy's bread

John had said he was worried that people would freak out about pate made from pork fat, but we couldn't get enough of this Croatian specialty. The pork fat is mixed with boiled eggs, pickles and sour cream, creating a chunky pork paste that is perfect on a crusty baguette.

Amanda's timballo di crespelle or crepe pie
Amanda's timballo di crespelle or crepe pie

Amanda brought along a timballo de crespelle, a specialty from Abruzzo, where her family are originally from in Italy.

Timballo di crespelle slice
Timballo di crespelle slice 

It's an impressive layered construction of crepes and alternating fillings of mince, mushrooms and mozzarella. It's kinda like a fancy vegetarian lasagne, without the bechamel sauce.

Phuoc cutting up her spanakopita cheese and spinach pie
Phuoc cutting up her spanakopita cheese and spinach pie

We move to Greece with Phuoc's spanakopita. The filo pastry is so flaky you can hear it shattering as the knife cuts through. There's an alluring smell of butter in the air too.

Cheese and spinach filling inside the spanakopita
Cheese and spinach filling inside the spanakopita

The spanakopita has a hearty filling of cheese and spinach. The pastry shards are the best bit.

John's twice-cooked octopus, slow-roasted for four hours and then char-grilled
John's twice-cooked octopus, slow-roasted for four hours and then char-grilled

John had lavished plenty of tender loving care with the octopus, first boiling it, then roasting it at a low temperature for four hours the day before. To finish it off, the octopus is grilled on the mini Weber just before serving. It's incredibly tender, flecked with a smoky char from the barbecue, and served with dollops of homemade beetroot mayonnaise in hot pink.

Sara's Greek meatballs in tomato sauce
Sara's Greek meatballs in tomato sauce

Sara's Greek meatballs are amazing too, super soft and tender in a chunky tomato sauce. The secret, I'm told, is the use of sliced bread soaked in red wine added to the beef mince. We devour them with gusto, soaking up the sauce with thick slices of fresh sourdough bread.

Amanda's cicerchiata ora, a traditional Italian dessert eaten during the February carnival
Amanda's cicerchiata ora, a traditional Italian dessert eaten during the February carnival

Amanda's brought dessert too, a cicerchiata ora which is a traditional Italian dessert she remembers her Mum making for her at Christmas. Usually this is eaten during the February carnival, but I can see why this would be ideal at Christmas with its wreath-like appearance and festive dusting of sprinkles.

Cicerchiata comes from the word cicerchie which are grass peas similar to chickpeas. Amanda tells us the dough is similar to pasta, sweetened with sugar and then rolled into balls and deep-fried until golden. The balls are then coated with warmed honey and shaped into a wreath.

I couldn't stop eating this. The balls are chewy in the middle, like a hybrid of a donut and a biscuit. The honey coating tastes like a gentle toffee, and the slivered almonds give an addictive crunch. What's even more impressive is that Amanda made this the weekend before and froze it. It's a common trick her mother does, she tells us, because "Italians have all kinds of tricks for mass catering." It's brilliant because it works. None of us can tell that this was frozen and then defrosted. Nonnas do know a thing or two!

My brutti ma buoni, or "ugly but good" Italian hazelnut biscuits
My brutti ma buoni, or "ugly but good" Italian hazelnut biscuits

I also brought along brutti ma buoni, an Italian hazelnut biscuit that translates as "ugly but good". Essentially it's a hazelnut macaroon, a mixture of hazelnuts and egg white baked into a meringue that's crisp on the edge with a chewy middle.

Anna's cheese board with John's smoked grapes
Anna's cheese board with John's smoked grapes

Anna couldn't cook as she was tied up all weekend but she easily made amends with her impressive cheese board collection. We feast on potted blue Stilton, a gooey brie and a peppered cheddar, savoured with all kinds of variations that include oat cakes, quince paste and raw honeycomb.

John's smoked grapes
John's smoked grapes


And then there were the smoked grapes! John confesses he doesn't know what prompted him to smoke grapes but I reckon there'll be all kinds of crazy smoking inventiveness at his place over the next month or so.

The white grapes, in particular, have taken on an intense smokiness. Anna says it reminds her of Islay whisky and its distinct peatiness. I have to agree. It's strange but alluring. Eating a smoked grape with the brie is next level deliciousness. 

A fab afternoon with friends with good food and wine. Thanks for hosting us, John! Scroll on for the recipes. 

Quince paste
Quince paste

Raw honeycomb for the potted blue stilton
Raw honeycomb for the potted blue stilton

White bean dip with crostini recipe

Recipe: White bean dip with crostini
Adapted from a recipe by Serious Eats

400g tin of cannellini beans
1/2 clove garlic, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon fresh rosemary, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
2 teaspoons lemon zest
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and pepper to season

Crostini
1 baguette
Extra virgin olive oil

  1. Pulse beans, garlic, rosemary and lemon in a food processor until smooth.  
  2. While the motor is still running, slowly add the extra virgin olive oil through the food processor feed tube. If your food processor doesn't have (or you're using a stab mixer) add the evoo in small amounts and blend thoroughly between each addition. 
  3. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
  4. Transfer to a covered air-tight container and store in the fridge for up to three days.
To make the crostini
  1. Preheat your oven to 180C (160C if fan-forced).
  2. Slice the baguette into 5mm thick rounds.
  3. Place baguette rounds onto a lined baking tray and brush each side with extra virgin olive oil.
  4. Bake until a pale golden brown, and then turn the slices over to bake the other side. Total baking time should be about ten minutes. 
  5. Allow to cool on the tray and then transfer to a covered air-tight container. They should keep in a cool dark place for about a week. 

Brutti ma buoni "ugly but good" Italian hazelnut biscuits recipe

Recipe: Brutti ma buoni "ugly but good" Italian hazelnut biscuits
Adapted from a recipe by Dan Lepard

300g hazelnuts
150g almonds
300g sugar
6 medium egg whites
3 teaspoons vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cocoa

  1. Roast the hazelnuts at 180C for about ten minutes and then rub them in a tea towel to remove their skins. Allow to cool.
  2. When ready to start baking, preheat the oven to 160C (140C if fan forced). 
  3. Place the almonds, sugar and half the hazelnuts into a food processor and pulse until you have a coarse crumb. Random large pieces of nuts are fine. 
  4. Add the egg whites, vanilla extract and cocoa and pulse again until evenly mixed.
  5. Transfer the contents of the food processor into a heavy saucepan. Cook over a high heat, stirring constantly, until the meringue thickens. It should be stiff enough so the mixture no longer collapses when stirred or moved. 
  6. Chop the remaining hazelnuts in half and add to the saucepan mixture.  Stir until well incorporated.
  7. Place tablespoons of mixture onto a lined baking tray. The mixture will be very sticky so use two spoons to help transfer the mixture. 
  8. Bake for about 25-30 minutes or until the bottoms of the meringue feel dry and firm.
  9. Transfer to a wire rack to cool. 
  10. These biscuits should be eaten cold and are best consumed within three days. They will keep for up to a week in a covered air-tight container but may dry out slowly.

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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 10/23/2014 12:43:00 am


Sunday, October 19, 2014

ACME, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney

Baloney sandwich at ACME, Rushcutters Bay

Hot summers, BMX bikes and Sunny Boys. One bite of the baloney sandwich ($8) at ACME and you're guaranteed a flashback to your Aussie childhood. Remember devon sandwiches with tomato sauce on white bread? Head chef Mitch Orr takes you on a trip down memory lane but elevates the experience. That means pillowy waves of wafer thin shavings of mortadella and a dollop of umami-rich housemade tomato sauce jammed into the yawning jaw of a soft and sweet potato bun.

Dynamite light fittings at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Dynamite light fittings

Acme means "the highest point" but it's also the clever acronym of the first names of the four partners involved in this venture: Andy Emerson (The Passage), Cam Fairbairn (The Passage, Pinbone), Mitch Orr (Duke Bistro, 121 BC) and Ed Loveday (The Passage).  And I'm glad I'm not the only one who immediately thought of the Road Runner cartoon either. The dynamite light fittings are a cheeky nod to another childhood favourite.

Table setting at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Table setting

The restaurant is bigger than you'd expect, with a clever seating configuration that maximises all available space. That means flexible counter seating along the front window, at the bar, and around the staircase leading to the private dining room downstairs. There are small tables in the front room, in the alcove facing the kitchen, and in the sunroom out the back.

There's a happy casual feel to the place, but there's also a marked attentiveness to detail. That means beautifully crafted water glasses, glazed ceramic plates and soft napkins in denim blue.

Purple drank beetroot and celery cocktails at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Purple Drank - gin, Campari, Americano vermouth and beetroot $18 and
Celery - rye whisky, citrus and soda $16

They've got ACME beers on the drinks menu (from California, USA), but the cocktails are what catch our eye. The Celery has a wicked kick of rye whisky but I dig the Purple Drank even more, a clever take on the classic Negroni rounded out with beetroot.

Menu at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
ACME menu

The menu has been designed as a series of small plates, so even the most expensive pasta - the squid ink strozzapretti - tops out at $24. They're all big enough to share between at least two people.

We sit down and immediately order the entire snack section. Between the four of us we'll manage to get through eleven of the sixteen dishes on the menu. Who cares that we have a second dinner booked at Berta at 8.30pm.

Pickled cucumber at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Pickled cucumber $4

The snack menu includes all kinds of tasty nibbles. That includes fluorescent planks of pickled cucumber, imbued with the alcoholic fizz of gin and tonic.

Rockmelon and prosciutto at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Rockmelon and prosciutto $6

Reinvention and fun makes its way to all corners of the menu, which is how you'll find yourself biting into juicy blocks of sweet rockmelon coated in a prosciutto crumb. It's the classic salt and sweet combo from your Italian trattoria with the added bonus of crunch.

Fried globe artichoke and chamomile at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Fried globe artichoke and chamomile $12

Fried globe artichokes are the only deep-fried thing on the menu. They're satisfyingly good, their nutty sweetness enriched with dabs of the mayo-like cream on the side, an emulsion that's actually made from chamomile and soy.

Asparagus and brown butter at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Asparagus and brown butter $12

The brown butter served with long spears of blanched asparagus involves mind trickery too. There's a moment of confusion before you realise the brown butter tastes just like salted caramel, transforming humble vegetables into some kind of madcap dessert. The toasted quinoa gives a welcome crunch.

Toast, semi-dried tomato and cuttlefish at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Toast, semi-dried tomato and cuttlefish $12

You could be easily forgiven for thinking that's lardo on toasted sourdough, but it's actually whisper thin slices of cuttlefish. You'd swear that Orr is playing out a series of practical jokes with each dish.

But you get the last laugh really. The chewy slab of sourdough is the perfect carriage for squishy semi-dried tomatoes (made in-house) and the sexy silk sheets of cuttlefish. It's an eye-closing moment.

Beef tartare, walnut and witlof at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Beef tartare, walnut and witlof $20

Beef tartare is the final choice in the snack section. We relish its handcut chunkiness and the crisp ribbons of witlof piled across the top. The surprise inclusion of walnut works so well against the beef.

Head chef and co-owner Mitch Orr at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Head chef and co-owner, Mitch Orr

Main are all about pasta, a passion that Orr has built on progressively since his pasta degustation events at Buzo. He's adamant about providing exceptional pasta at a budget price. We're not talking mountains of cheap spaghetti with greasy bolognaise. This is about fresh pasta made in-house. They even have their own mechanical pasta extruder to make all kinds of shapes.

Squid ink strozzapreti, octopus and chrysanthemum at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Squid ink strozzapreti, octopus and chrysanthemum $24

I'm a huge fan of the squid ink strozzapretti, striking with its ebony glossiness against a background of blue. There's an awesome chewiness to the pasta twists, jumbled up with slices of tender octopus tentacles, fresh chilli and young chrysanthemum leaves - a vegetable I more commonly associate with Chinese hot pot.

Wholemeal bucatini, goat, nduja and olive at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Wholemeal bucatini, goat, nduja and olive $22

Bucatini usually has a wild and out-of-control slipperiness that makes slurping each strand a dangerous sport, but Orr's wholemeal version gives it a little more weight and substance. The hollow tubes add springiness to the left-field goat ragu, amplified with spicy nduja and salty accents of olive.

Lasagna, mushroom and sheep's curd at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Lasagna, mushroom and sheep's curd $20

The lasagna probably isn't what you expect either. The thick sheets of fresh lasagna are more on the undercooked side of al dente for me but it's hard not to admire the forest of mushrooms piled between each layer. It's a bountiful harvest of shimeji, shiitake, nameko, wood ear and enoki mushrooms; the traditional bechamel replaced with sheep's curd and the entire lot showered with rosemary dust.

Macaroni, pigs head and egg yolk at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Macaroni, pigs head and egg yolk $18

Just as the baloney sandwich seems to be fast becoming the signature snack at ACME, so too is the macaroni, pigs head and egg yolk establishing itself as the pasta favourite. The wide stumps of macaroni are a far cry from the supermarket version, littered with torn shreds of succulent flesh from the pigs head.

Mixing the egg yolk into the macaroni at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Mixing the egg yolk into the macaroni

Mix in the raw egg yolk and you've got Orr's version of Filipino sisig, pasta-fied. It's rich and comforting, the kind of dish you want to savour, slowly chewing each yolk-smothered macaroni tube.

Nashi pear sorbet and rosemary meringue at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Nashi pear sorbet and rosemary meringue $10

Desserts are all about ice cream. We order two of the three but the kitchen sends out the last one anyway. We're glad they did. The nashi pear sorbet is instantly refreshing, covered in smithereens of rosemary meringue.

Malteser ice cream and candied bacon at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Malteser ice cream and candied bacon $10

Ordering the Malteser ice cream and candied bacon is a given, of course. The creamy ice cream has hidden jackpots of smashed up Maltesers, draped in a rubble of candied bacon. It's a impressive rendition, not just because it's salty and sweet, but because there's been some mastery involved with balance. The ice cream isn't jarringly laden with sugar and the bacon isn't harsh with salt.

Jersualem artichoke ice cream and hazelnut praline at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
Jerusalem artichoke ice cream and hazelnut praline $10

But the surprise winner of the night is the Jerusalem artichoke ice cream. It's another sweet and savoury combo theme that continues Orr's determination to make you question each spoonful. There's no mistaking the flavour of Jerusalem artichoke in the ice cream, but it's the curls of deep fried Jerusalem artichokes that make you want to eat more, even as your brain sends messages of confusion to your palate.

The savoury kick of the artichoke chips reminds me of khanom mo gaeng, the eggy Thai custard covered with deep fried shallots.

Private dining room at ACME, Rushcutters Bay
The private dining room downstairs

There's not much room here for a post-dinner amble, but staff are usually cool for you to head downstairs to check out the private dining room. It's a stylish set-up, complete with its own private bar.

Make sure you visit the bathroom too, for a Seinfeld-related chuckle or two.

Entrance to ACME, Rushcutters Bay


ACME on Urbanspoon

ACME
60 Bayswater Road, Rushcutters Bay, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 8068 0932

Opening hours:
Tuesday to Saturday from 5pm


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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 10/19/2014 02:09:00 am


Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Khao Pla, Chatswood

Thai tea ice cream at Khao Pla, Chatswood

As if Thai iced tea wasn't tasty enough, Khao Pla go ahead and turn it into ice cream. It's an even more intense hit of strong tea laced with condensed milk, a distillation that seems to reflect the overall philosophy at Khao Pla. The food here is bold and unapologetic with flavour in a take-no-prisoners fashion.

Diners inside Khao Pla, Chatswood

From its first day of opening in August 2013, Khao Pla has been buzzing with locals. The dining room might tick all the boxes for the hip new Asian restaurant -- wooden benches, metal stools, industrial light fittings and striking artwork on the walls -- but it's all underpinned by some impressive credentials here too. Head chef Pla Rojratanavichai spent five years manning the woks at Spice I Am before racking up stints at Mr Wong and Ms G's.

The menu includes 40-something dishes, enough depth to give you plenty of choices for at least a couple of visits. On your maiden visit, it's a battle trying to work out what to prioritise first.

Isaan steak tartare at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Isaan steak tartare $13

Isaan steak tartare is a good place to start. Prepared in a northeastern Thai style, the hand chopped beef is cool and slippery, jumbled up with chilli flakes, lime juice and herbs. Ground roasted rice and deep fried shallots give an element of crunch. It's one of my favourite dishes of the night.

Hor mok yang grilled fish curry in banana leaf at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Hor mok yang $7 each
Grilled fish curry wrapped in banana leaf

In the "small bite" section you'll find hor mok yang, banana leaf parcels that hold golden pillows of grilled fish curry. Sink your fork through this red curry mousse and you'll find a vibrancy of heat and spices tempered with coconut milk and kaffir lime. It's like a controlled flavour bomb.  Your tastebuds will relish it for hours later.

Char grilled pork neck at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Nam tok moo grilled pork neck $13
with ground roasted rice, chilli flake and lime juice

There's a whole heap of proteins in the grilled and fried section: soft shell crab, calamari, prawns, wagyu and tofu. We narrow in on the nam tok moo or grilled pork neck, thick slices of char-grilled pork that are even sweeter when dipped in the hot and spicy dressing spiked with chilli flakes and lime juice.

Fried chicken wings at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Gai Tord $13
Fried curry marinated chicken wings with Thai basil

The fried curry marinated chicken wings win over plenty of new fans. The emphasis here isn't on the crunch of batter, but the addictive curry marinade that's been slathered into every crevice.

Sweet and sour pork ribs at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Pork ribs $19

You could try eating the pork ribs with chopsticks, but using your fingers is much more satisfying. The sweet and sour pork ribs are glazed with a sticky marinade of palm sugar and tamarind that's perfect for savouring with a bowl of steamed white rice. 

Gaeng Som spicy and sour fish curry at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Gaeng Som $15
Spicy and sour fish curry with squash flowers and Chinese cabbage

They'e got all your Thai classics here, like pad thai, massaman beef, green curry chicken and pad see ew but it's worth hunting out the less obvious dishes. Gaeng som is one of them, a hot and sour fish curry that includes scarlet wisteria flowers (dok khae), an elusive Thai ingredient that sends the G-Man into a homesick frenzy.

Banana blossom salad at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Banana blossom salad $17

Liven things up with a couple of salads too. The banana blossom salad is all about texture, tossing together thin slices of banana bell with strips of tender poached chicken, fragrant dried shrimp, crunchy toasted coconut and deep fried shallots. Add fresh coriander, shallots, chilli, tamarind and palm sugar and you've scored a funhouse of salty, savoury, sour, spicy and sweet.

Green mango salad at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Green mango salad $18

The green mango salad is sweeter than som tum green papaya salad, but it's a tasty treat when it's in season. It's hard to resist the freshness of sweet green mango tossed through with coriander, dried shrimp, fish sauce, palm sugar and roasted peanuts.

Coconut sorbet at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Coconut sorbet $6
with palm candy, jackfruit, roasted peanuts 

They make their own ice creams at Khao Pla, meaning desserts are mandatory here. The coconut sorbet is smooth and silky, spiked with a touch of salt that accentuates the coconut flavour.

Thai milk tea ice cream with coconut jelly and jackfruit at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Thai milk tea ice cream $6
with coconut jelly and jackfruit

Thai milk tea ice cream has the hit of strong vanilla tea mellowed with lashings of condensed milk.  It's crowned with strands of kanom foy tong, a popular Thai treat of sweetened egg yolk threads.

Thai milk coffee ice cream at Khao Pla, Chatswood
Thai milk coffee ice cream $8
with mochi and Thai wafer

And caffeine addicts will approve of the Thai milk coffee ice cream. There's a wicked bitterness to this one, alleviated by more of that glorious condensed milk. If you weren't already buzzing after dinner, you will be after this finishing this one.


Khao Pla on Urbanspoon

Khao Pla
Shop 7, 370 Victoria Avenue (entrance on Anderson Street), Chatswood, Sydney
Tel: +61 (02) 9412 4978

Opening hours:
Daily 11am-10pm


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posted by Helen (Grab Your Fork) on 10/15/2014 02:32:00 am



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