Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Birthday slice.

My birthday is in mid-November, conveniently arriving right at the end of the semester.  I suggested a joint celebration - the end of classes, marking assignments, and a campus full of undergrads, as well as my 26th year on earth.  In the style of little kids bringing cupcakes to school to share with their class, I said I would bring cake.

But then, I read Hannah's post about a pre-packaged treat she found which was reminiscent of caramel slice.  And I wanted caramel slice.

But, how to veganise something which is based almost entirely on sweetened condensed milk, considering that the only way I can find a vegan version is to mail order, and I didn't have time to do that (also, where's the challenge in that!!). 

So I turned to the internet, googling around for alternatives to sweetened condensed milk.  I had hoped coconut cream would do the trick, but then realised it didn't have the sugar required to caramelise and set properly.  Eventually, I found reference to a recipe for Dulce de Leche by Alton Brown, and I thought it would be the perfect caramel layer, atop a coconutty-biscuit base, and under a chocolatey-ganache.

Here's my veganised version of Alton Brown's Dulce de Leche:

2 x 400mL tins of coconut cream
1 1/2 c. raw sugar
1 vanilla bean, split in half with seeds scraped
1/2 tsp. baking soda

Combine the coconut cream, sugar, vanilla bean and seeds in a large saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a simmer, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has dissolved. Once the sugar has dissolved, add the baking soda and stir to combine. Reduce the heat to low and cook uncovered at a bare simmer. Stir occasionally. Continue to cook for 1 hour. Remove the vanilla bean after 1 hour and cook another hour, until it is quite thick.

Now, at this stage I got tired of cooking, even though Alton suggests going a bit longer and letting it get quite dark.  So I stirred in some corn flour, let it bubble for a few more minutes, and poured it over my biscuit base, wishing and hoping it would set up in the fridge.

As I cooked the caramel, I couldn't stop licking the spoon.  It was so sweet, but so delicious.  I think it's worth getting a proper vanilla bean here, because it really made a big difference.  Andy and I just got 100 grams of vanilla beans in PNG for less than AU$25, which is a pretty sweet deal, so I used one of those. 

Despite the deliciousness of the caramel, when I checked it the next morning, it hadn't set!  The caramel was too runny to, well, slice the slice into slices.  So I quickly threw a chocolate cake together and baked it while we ate breakfast.  I scooped some of the thick but not hard caramel off the slice and put it in a tupperware, bringing it along as a caramel sauce to go alongside the cake.

At the celebratory morning tea, everyone loved the cake and the caramel.  And the best part was getting to eat the failed caramel slice with a spoon straight from the pan.  Andy and I finished the whole thing within three days!

So, although my attempts at caramel slice were unfruitful, I did find a delicious (if time-consuming) recipe for caramel sauce which is absolutely to die for.  Every cloud has a silver lining, no?

Monday, November 29, 2010

The cure of my ancestors.

I mentioned in my last post about my trip to PNG that I came back and caught a cold.  This was an almost immediate thing - I travelled home on Wednesday (alllllll day, leaving at 6.10 am and getting home at 10pm, all in the same time zone), and somewhere in the epic day of travel I started getting a headache.  The next morning I woke up with a sore throat, which soon turned into a sniffly-snuffly nose.  Only, I had to come in to uni on that Thursday and Friday, because I promised my students I would be available before their essays were due, that Friday night.  Would you believe that, despite the frantic emails I received the whole time I was away, not one of them came to my office?

I suspect that my illness may have stemmed from a 6 hour hike up a volcano in the rain, whereby I got completely drenched.  It was probably not helped by 16 hours spent in planes and airports.  Whatever caused it, I felt shitty.  I grew up using the middle class white cure for everything:

And, despite not having eaten Campbell's chicken noodle soup in something like 7 years, and despite being grossed about by it even when I did eat it, that is what I felt like on the worst day of this cold.  So, I came home from uni ridiculously early and set about making some soup which approximated the salty, yellow-ish stuff.

I made stock out of Massel chicken-style stock, some dijon mustard, oil (I remember Campbell's being pretty fatty), a bit of miso, and some turmeric for that bright yellow quality that sticks in my head.  I mixed 1/4 c. of gluten with 1/4 c. of water and broke off tiny chunks to replicate the icky-chewy chicken-ish bits.  I also added some chilli, and whole cloves of garlic, which is by no means authentic to the tinned stuff but sure is good for a cold.  Then I let the whole thing simmer away for about an hour, while I read a magazine.  Then I broke up some noodles from the asian grocery store, so they were about 1inch long, and put those in and let it cook till they were quite soft.  The result was surprisingly delicious.  I don't know how closely it resembles its inspiration, but it sure did make me feel better.

I made a lot, so when Andy came home a few days later and proceeded to catch the cold from me, I was able to heat up some soup and serve with freshly baked corn muffins.  I don't think he had the same memories attached to the tinned condensed soup, but he liked it anyways.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


I have, in the past year or so, become a lover of dresses.  I'm not exactly sure why I made the shift from a jeans and skirt wearer (not at the same time - I've never gotten into that layered look) to a wearer of dresses.  Part of the reason, I think, is that I find them fun to wear.  I think my appreciation of dresses came about in response to watching Pushing Daisies; Chuck is such a lovable character, and her dresses make me extremely envious.  Another part is that they are easy and compact, so when I bike in to uni I can just put one thing (and a bra) into my bag instead of worrying about various component parts of outfits requiring both tops and bottoms.  And after I shower, getting dressed is so easy - sure, I save maybe 1 minute by not putting pants on, but that's 7 minutes over the course of a week.  (I'm mainly joking about this.  I'm not so important as to need that extra 7 minutes for anything useful.)

Anyways.  Most of my dresses come from second hand shops, because I have a hard time parting with my money in large quantities.  This will become even more pronounced in the coming weeks, as my job search has thus far been unsuccessful and my current contracts will soon be over.  Boy, do I miss the scholarship gravy train!  I poo-pooed $6.75 an hour for full-time PhD-ing when I was getting it, but I'd definitely take it without complaints right now!  Job woes aside, I do like to go to shops and, more often, websites, and stare wistfully at various dresses.  Every now and then, I part with my highly valued money and buy a new dress.

This discussion of fashion is meant to segue smoothly into my mention of a new website, ecolissa.com.  This website seriously tempts me to fork over some money and get a dress.  This is for a few reasons: (1) the dresses are soso pretty; (2) the owner, Melissa, is vegan, and I like the idea of supporting vegan business-people; (3) the products are made from environmentally friendly materials; and (4) the exchange rate is really very good at the moment, so ordering things from the US is not nearly as big a decision as it sometimes can be.


Or this one:

The site sells women's clothing and accessories, all "fashionable, eco-friendly, and vegan".  And, here's the kicker, if you use the coupon code "eco20" when you check out, you'll get 20% off your purchase.  And if you live in the US, shipping is only $5. 

For me, it's a matter of drooling over the pretty-pretties until I get a job offer, at which point I will definitely take advantage of Melissa's generous offer of a discount and get myself something.  As a reward, ya know?

Monday, November 22, 2010

Undah da sea...

When I went to PNG in 2006, Andy had lots of research to do and genuinely needed my help for some of it, so we spent about 6 hours under water each day.  6 days a week (or more).  For 2 months.  It was pretty full on, and by the end of it I think I stopped being amazed by the reef and everything on it.

That was 4 years ago, and I've barely been in the water since then - aside from swimming at the beach, I've been in on snorkel once or twice, in cloudy water and fringing reefs (read: unimpressive views).  So I was looking forward to putting my mask and fins on again when I went to PNG earlier this month.  This time, Andy was wrapping up a few things, spending time in the lab but mostly waiting for samples to process.  Since he had some downtime, he decided to gather more data (what a dedicated scientist, hey?).  Luckily this was pretty easy - a few measuring tapes laid along the reef, and Andy went along measuring all the corals of certain species which were found within these 'belt transects'. 

It took no more than 3 hours to do all five transects on each reef, and he had four reefs total.  So we took it pretty easy, spending an hour or two in the water every day.  I was reminded of how wonderful it is underwater.

The colours are amazing.

One of the things I love most is the silence -- the only thing you can hear is your own breath.  Wait, that's not entirely true.  If you quiet your breathing you can sometimes hear parrotfishes munching on corals.  It took me a while to locate that scraping sound when I first heard it.
Parrotfish bit marks on a purple Porites coral.

These reefs are very close to the shore, and quite small, so they are largely overlooked by the dive resort.  And, under negotiations between the conservation centre and the local villages, a number of reefs have been designated as 'tambu' reefs, essentially turning them into no-take zones. 

An old and rusted Tambu sign on a protected reef.

As a result, they are pretty untouched.  The fish barely move out of your way when you swim past.

The cleaner wrasses go right on cleaning.

The clown fishes go right on... clowning.

Some of the life under the sea, like these purple and yellow ascidians, are evolutionary artefacts, representing early versions of a spinal cord.
Some look like artefacts from grandma's couch, like these big Cushion Starfishes.

Others look manmade but are not, like these silvery "sailor's eyeballs", a kind of macro-algae.

There is, basically, an entire world under the surface of the ocean.
This is the last of my PNG posts, because, sadly, I am finished with my holiday and back into the daily grind of marking essays, working on papers, and catching a cold (boo).  But I am so glad for the holiday I had.  It was really a break from everyday life -- I did lots of stuff that I never do, like drink cordial instead of plain water, eat white bread, throw the recyclables into the regular trash (this one made me feel dirty, but there is no recycling facility around), snack profusely between meals, and climb a semi-active volcano.  Now I'm back to my normal routine, but I'm much more relaxed as a result - must be a side effect of floating on top of the water, watching a world beneath the sea, and quite literally going with the flow...

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Christmas Cookies

Hi everyone,

This is a short break in my PNG travel posts to tell you about a little Christmas Cookie Extravaganza happening over at Nuestra Cena blog.  Millie, the creator of this blog, has enlisted a range of guest bloggers and together are posting a bunch of cookie recipes in the lead-up to the December holidays.  Whether you celebrate christmas or not, I think cookies are something that we can all celebrate, so hop on over to Millie's blog for a look through some delicious recipes.  And tomorrow, my own recipe for Hop Scotch biscuits, a deliciously spicy-boozy-peanutty-chocolatey cookie, will go live on the site.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


As I have mentioned about my recent trip to PNG, I ate a lot of food when I was there.  But all those tasty, tasty calories were put to good use. 

Fairly early in the trip, Andy and I decided that Sunday would be the best day to climb up Mt Gubuna, the semi-active volcano in Kilu village.  We arranged it with Andy's boat driver, Michael, a Kilu resident and the cousin of the guy who is in charge of Gubuna.  He would walk up with us, since the path was poorly defined, and because he had family connections the walk would only cost us 20 Kina (instead of the 20 Kina per person that tourists usually have to pay).

Saturday evening we started getting things ready - water bottles were filled and put into our backpack along with insect repellent, bandages (for any blisters, of course), Oreos, muesli bars, and the camera.  Almost immediately after zipping the backpack closed, it started raining outside.  Pouring, in fact.  And it continued all night long.  We woke up on Sunday morning to a light drizzle and hoped that the downpour wouldn't make the trek impossible.  Michael found us and asked if we still wanted to go, reminded us that the path wasn't too steep, indicating with his arm a 30 degree angle, and we all decided it was worth a shot. 

So we set off through the rain.  I didn't take photos on the way up, but I do have some from the trip down.  The trek up was much steeper than Michael's arm angle suggested, and even though we took turns carrying the backpack, we were pretty knackered.  Michael was like a mountain goat, walking barefoot and getting ahead of us easily, then getting a short break while he waited for us to catch up.  As soon as we did, though, he was off again, so the short breaks were almost never experienced by us!  We were joined early in our walk by three dogs from the village, with a range of jungle-abilities. 

One was constantly running off into the bush in search of smells and sounds; one stuck close to us but was clearly energetic; the last was more comfortable around people and spent most of her time walking between Andy and I.  The pace was so quick that there was hardly time to notice the surrounds on the way up, other than to register that once we entered the jungle, it was thick.  There was only one spill on the way up, when Andy slipped in the mud on the way up a very steep section, but he walked it off and eventually we made it to the top and were met with a pretty incredible view.

From what I gathered, the volcano hasn't erupted, with lava and the works, since the 90s.  But it is active pretty regularly, smoking, steaming, and spewing ash.  It was very active about a year ago, but it had subsided enough that we could head down into the vent, which was crusted over with hard clay. 

In a few spots, the clay was soft; we didn't step there.

Although it is considered inactive at the moment, the volcano still smelt strongly of sulphur, and there was a pool of water boiling away.

We were muddy and tired, and my legs were already sore, but this was worth it!

The distinction between the lush green rainforest and the burnt, stony volcano was stark and beautiful.

After a few minutes (and a few sandwiches), it was time to head back up to the edge so that we could head back down the mountain.  This required a bush bash through some ferns.

Then it was back into the jungle.  The way down was, hypothetically at least, easier than the way up.  However, it had been raining for longer; our tracks on the way up had muddied things a bit; and we were tired.  As a result, there were a few more spills on the way down.  Andy and I both ended up with muddy bums, but somehow Michael stayed upright and clean the whole time. 

We did have time to gaze at the scenery a bit more than when our heads were down on the trek up.

There were plenty of big trees which made Andy, who is quite big himself, look puny.

Only about half of the walk was actually through the rainforest, though.  We also spent a fair bit of time walking through gardens.  Villagers have huge patches of land where they grow taro, bananas, and everything else they need.  Given the rich, volcanic soil and the regular rainfall, the gardens are lush and prolific.

In addition to subsistence agriculture, these gardens were home to lots of cocoa for export, to feed our hungry addictions to chocolate.  (On the way up, we opened a ripe cocoa pod and sucked on the seeds.  They are coated in a fruit which is similar in taste and texture to custard apple.  Usually the fruit is discarded and the seeds are dried into cocoa beans.  I thought the fruit was pretty yummy, too.)

At lunchtime, we made it back down to the small collection of huts where we started. 

It was still raining, we were exhausted and soaked, sore, and Andy had massive blisters all over his feet.  We got a brief rest on the bench under the hut, so we cracked open the Oreos and shared them around, and quickly became heroes in the eyes of a ~7 year old girl who has probably never eaten chocolate cookies before.

Finally, we had a short walk through some oil palm plantation -- these trees take up most of the island, provide most of the employment, and provide the world with a cheap source of fat.

When we got back, we kind of could barely walk.  For two days.  We managed to get into the water for a swim the next day, which helped to stretch out some muscles.  But it also gave Andy blisters on top of his hike-blisters.  As sore and exhausted as the walk left me, it was an incredible experience that I wouldn't hesitate to do again.

Friday, November 12, 2010

PNG Eats

On my recent trip to PNG, I ate lots and lots of food.  Even though the snorkelling was by no means strenuous (and only for a few hours a day) I snacked like crazy.  And, given the availability of food in the shops and the market over there, things were pretty carb-heavy.  In other words, I was kind of in heaven.

There was no soy milk around, and since it was a short trip I didn't bother worrying about it. (When I went before, for two months, I brought up some powder which was gross, but then found some asceptic soymilks from Vietnam for sale in the store.)  Breakfast, then, consisted of toast or oats.  Both with lots of bananas.

Most days we went diving at 11 or so, and had a big mid-morning snack before going.  Avocado toast, anyone?

Lunch was either two-minute noodles or sandwiches.  Then for an afternoon snack I often had Ryvitas with peanut butter, or with vegemite.

We got through a few chocolate cakes for afternoon and evening snackage.

And we cooked dinner every night, except for one when we went over to the resort for a rather disappointing meal.  Our kitchen was a bit small, and the stove, pans and utensils weren't wonderful, but we managed to produce a few good meals (and a few mediocre ones).
The first night, Andy cooked up a bunch of pasta with a tomatoey-sweet potatoey-olivey sauce.  It was an interesting combination - the flavours were good but the texture of sweet potato with pasta was a little funny.  (The photos of our dinners were hard to get, because it was so dark by 6pm and the lights in the house were not great, so apologies for the fuzziness.)

I had brought the recipe for Jamaican Cook Up Rice from The Tropical Vegan, so we made that with some changes.  We didn't have any fresh herbs, and barely any spices, but this coconutty rice & black eyed peas was good anyways.  The pumpkin greens we stirred through were a winner; the sweet potato had gone off and made me want to gag.  We picked it out and somehow managed to enjoy the meal anyways (being in PNG makes me a lot less precious about that sort of thing).

We had two noodle stir-fries.  One, with a packet of Ma Po sauce, made our mouths tingle in a chemically way.  Another was much better, made with simply sweet chilli and soy sauce, with eggplant, pumpkin and a green that looked like watercress.

The rice in PNG is good.

Especially with a yummy chickpea stew on top.  This was coconut milk, tomatoes, and curry powder and was surprisingly good.  On the side we had a giant salad, and some more pumpkin greens sauteed in liquid seasoning.

And we found a new favourite food in plantains.  We tried two varieties while we were over there - kiau kiau were skinny like regular bananas, and there was a fatter, starchier variety as well.  I fried them up, tostone style.  One night we had them with refried beans & corn.

Another night they went with a veggie & black eyed pea stew on rice (and a chocolate cake cooling in the background).

All up, we ate pretty well.  I'll be back soon to show you some of the activities I spent all those calories on...