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Posts Tagged ‘Australian Food’

Photo by Wikipedia user tristanb - used under CC license

When visiting Australia it is impossible not to encounter Vegemite, that mysterious black goop which many Aussies spread on their toast every morning and hold in a special place in their hearts. As a recent commercial attests, “Australian made….internationally misunderstood.”

I can report that while it looks like sludge left over from a secret experiment gone wrong, when eaten properly it is quite tasty. Vegemite is a concentrated yeast extract. I know, that really doesn’t make it sound any more appetizing, but it’s true. It’s made from the yeast that remains after the beer brewing process. Since Australians are unlikely to stop drinking beer any time soon, that means it’s quite sustainable and a good re-use of something that would otherwise be thrown away.

Vegemite is also one of the richest sources of B vitamins in the world. Oh yes, we’re piling up those exciting reasons to try out yeast spread on your toast aren’t we? Well, here’s something that should tantalize food lovers everywhere. Vegemite has a very high concentration of glutamic acid. So what, you say? Glutamic acid is what we taste when we experience umami or the “fifth taste” after salty, sweet, sour, and bitter. Umami’s prized, savory flavor is found naturally in many foods including Roquefort cheese, Parmesan cheese, soy sauce, grape juice, tomatoes, human milk, and beef. Vegemite nearly tops the list however, with over 1400 mg of glutamate per 100 grams; it is literally yummy.

As is customary around here, let’s have a brief look at the history of Australia’s favorite sandwich spread. Vegemite was invented in 1922 by, Dr. Cyril P. Callister, a chemist at the Fred Walker Company. The name was chosen in a nation-wide contest which was judged by Mr. Walker’s daughter Sheila. The winner, whose name has been lost in the mists of time, received a prize of ₤50 (about $2600 US today). The new product debuted 1923.

It was not a hit.

The next chapter in the history of Vegemite gives some insight into the Australian sense of humor. In 1928, after lackluster sales, Mr. Walker tried renaming the product Parwill. Australians were familiar with a similar yeast extract made in the UK called Marmite, so Walker created the tag line, “If Marmite . . . then Parwill” (try saying it with an Aussie accent). Whenever I groan at one of my Australian husband’s pun-filled jokes, he reminds me that it just might be genetic. Walker first tried selling Parwill in the state of Queensland as a test. It did about as well as you might expect . . . terribly. So the name was changed back.

In the end, Vegemite’s reputation was rescued by science. Just before WWII, the British Medical Association gave Vegemite its official endorsement as a product to be recommended by doctors to their patients as a source of B vitamins. During the war there was actually a shortage because the Australian military was buying every jar they could get their hands on to boost the nutrition of their soldiers. As often happens, when people can’t get something, they want it more, and the fact that it was helping their soldiers fight the good fight was great free marketing.

After the war Vegemite solidified its position on the brekkie table of the nation as it was fed to all the new members of the baby boom generation to ensure their good health:

How to Eat Vegemite Like an Australian

This is a case where less really is more. I think the reason so many non-Australians have tried Vegemite and hated it, is because, as they say on the Internet “You’re Doin’ It Wrong!” Follow these instructions and if you still don’t like it, well then you’re just a weirdo because it’s really good:

  • Toast some simple white sandwich bread
  • Spread the hot toast with a good amount of soft, unsalted butter and allow it to melt nicely.
  • Dip the tip of a clean knife into a jar of Vegemite and make a squiggle of it across your buttered toast. Do not, I repeat DO NOT, put more than this amount of Vegemite on your toast the first time you try it. Later, you may want to experiment with more, but start with just a tiny bit.

Some Australians enjoy horrifying visitors to their country by telling them they should just eat Vegemite from the jar with a spoon. For shame! Don’t believe anything they say about drop bears either.

Once you’ve mastered the art of eating it on toast with butter you might consider some of the other myriad uses Vegemite has been put to over the years including:

  • It’s a great addition to sauces and soups to give that savory umami taste.
  • Some pregnant women swear by it as a cure for morning sickness. Oh, and it contains a ridiculous amount of folic acid which is essential for women of child bearing age.
  • Mix with water and use as a marinate for chicken.
  • Add a little to your meatballs or meatloaf.
  • Vegemite is supposedly a great hangover cure (the Aussies should know!) and hey, the vitamins certainly won’t hurt.

Finally, no discussion of Vegemite is complete without the song that piqued listeners’ curiosity about it around the world:

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Aside from the cute accent, being married to an Australian has other advantages. We get to celebrate extra holidays, which of course involve food. January 26th is Australia Day, commemorating the arrival of the so called First Fleet at Sydney Cove in 1788. It marks the founding of the penal colony of New South Wales and the first European occupation of the continent of Australia.

One of the foods that is revered as being uniquely Australian is the lamington, a square of yellow or sponge cake covered in chocolate icing and rolled in dried coconut. Holding a similar place in the hearts of Australians as the brownie does for Americans, lamingtons are often served on Australia Day, but can also be found in bakeries and cafes year round. In particular they are the undisputed star of what we would call the bake sale, but which in Australia is simply known as the lamington drive. Any time money needs to be raised for a good cause, scores of people form assembly lines of cake baking, chocolate dipping and coconut rolling. Or they buy commercially made lamingtons at the store (no worries mate, we won’t tell).

It is thought that lamingtons are named for Charles Cochrane-Baillie, 2nd Baron Lamington, who was Governor of the colony of Queensland from 1896 to 1901. Supposedly, the governor arrived with guests at his summer home Harlaxton House in Toowoomba, which being in a somewhat mountainous area of southern Queensland is much cooler than the tropical north. His chef, Armand Gallad, was taken by surprise and had only day-old sponge cake to serve for tea. Improvising, he dipped the cake in some chocolate icing and rolled it in dried coconut. While nowadays coconuts grow all over Queensland, they were not as ubiquitous in the 19th Century and dried coconut was not a common ingredient in colonial cuisine. Needless to say, the newly invented tea cakes were a big hit with the governor’s guests who immediately asked for the recipe.

Australians are not known for wearing their patriotism on their sleeves, but they do enjoy Australia Day — any excuse for a barbeque; remember, January is summer time down there. Before we get to the lamington recipe, have a look at this ad for Meat and Livestock Australia made by former Australian Rules Football star Sam Kekovich with his rather opinionated take on what should be served on Australia Day:

Lamingtons

Makes 10-12 two-inch squares

You can use any yellow cake or sponge cake for this, but since it is a 19th Century recipe I decided to use a génoise which is an egg-leavened cake that was frequently used to make petits fours and other fancy tea cakes.

Génoise Cake adapted from Julia Child

4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
⅔ cup flour, sifted
3 large eggs
½ cup sugar
1½teaspoons vanilla extract
1 pinch salt

Preheat oven to 350F

Prepare an 8 inch round cake pan as follows: put a piece of waxed paper, cut to fit, in the bottom of the pan, then butter it well. Finally, flour the pan, knocking out any excess when finished.

Melt the butter and set it aside to cool.

Beat the eggs, sugar, vanilla and salt with a portable mixer or a stand mixer for about 10 minutes or until they are very thick and pale colored. When you lift the beaters out of the bowl a ribbon of batter should fall from them and lie distinctly on the surface in the bowl before sinking back in. This is what is known as the “ribbon stage” in baking.

Sprinkle about 1/4 of your sifted flour onto the batter and then quickly but gently fold the flour into it until it is almost incorporated. Do your best not to deflate the batter. Add 1/2 of the remaining flour and fold it in. Next, fold in about 1/3 of the cooled melted butter and then continue alternating between flour and butter until everything is incorporated.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and give it a shake to even it out. Bake for 20-25 minutes or until the top is spongy when pressed and the cake has just started to pull away from the edges of the pan.

Let it cool in the pan for about 10 minutes, then turn it out on a cooling rack. If the cake doesn’t come out of the pan right away leave it upside down on the rack for a few minutes and it should drop out. Peel off the waxed paper if it has stuck to the cake. When the cake has fully cooled (in about 11/2 hours) wrap it tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate over night.

Chocolate and Coconut Coating

Be sure to check the label on your package of coconut. Much of the stuff sold in supermarket has added sugar, which makes it too sweet.

4 cups (about 1 pound) confectioner’s sugar
⅓ cup cocoa powder
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
½ cup milk
2 cups dried, unsweetened coconut

Remove your génoise cake from the refrigerator and cut it into 2-inch pieces.

In a double boiler, or a heat-proof bowl set over a pot of simmering water (don’t let the water touch the bottom of the bowl), combine the confectioner’s sugar, cocoa powder, butter and milk. Stir together until it becomes a smooth liquid that is easily pourable. Remove the icing from the stove, but leave the water simmering as you will probably need it again during the process.

Pierce each piece of génoise cake with a fork and dunk it in the chocolate icing until it is completely covered. It helps to use a spoon in the other hand to scoop icing over the cake. Hold the piece of cake over the bowl and allow any excess icing to drip off, then place the cake on a plate of dried coconut and quickly roll it to cover all sides. Finally, put the finished lamington on a rack to set.

As you go, you’ll find that the chocolate icing will thicken as it cools, making it difficult to dip the pieces of cake. Bring the bowl or pot back to the stove, set it over the simmering water and stir to regain a pourable consistency. You may have to do this several times during the icing process. If, towards the end, it is still too thick even after reheating, add a little milk to thin it out.

Continue until all of your lamingtons are iced and rolled in coconut. Once they have set they will keep for several days if stored in an air tight container.

Variation: After the lamingtons are set you can split them with a knife and fill the center with strawberry jam.

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