Every Monday a newsletter from Sophie Hansen pops into my inbox. It's called Five Things to be Cheerful About. There are some things to cook; recommendations for television shows, or podcasts, or books; links to fun things she's found on the internet; music playlists; more recipes. It's like your best friend dropping by to catch up with the week and, while you share a cuppa and a slice of apple and blackberry rye pie, you realise that such simple moments are what life is truly about.
If there's one thing the past year and a bit has taught us is that it's the company of family and friends that matters most. When we went into lockdown or were kept apart by fires, and now floods, we realised no matter how much those closest to us can annoy us, it was their company we missed the most.
Hansen couldn't be happier that we're finally allowed back into each other's homes. Like everyone during lockdown, Hansen, food writer, farmer, mother of two, former Australian Rural Woman of the Year, home-schooled her children Alice and Tom, pivoted the deer farm she runs with her husband Tim, dealt with changes in her own food-centred business. The year threw her like it threw all of us.
"There is so much we can't control, we've learned that," she says, from her farm just outside Orange, in central NSW.
"But how we feed the people we love and show them that love through a table set with pretty flowers, candles, your best napkins, and their favourite food? This is in our control and it's powerful stuff.
"It's just the very best way of showing someone that you love them, it's not only saying I want you to eat well, I want you to have this good food that I've made for you, but also I want to spend all day cooking for you.
"Time is a big thing these days, right? Everyone is so busy, busy. Taking that time is such a beautiful act of love these days."
Her first book A Basket by the Door was all about cooking for those who might need a bit of love and nourishment, a little care package in the shape of cakes and pies and preserves that you could literally leave near someone's door.
Her latest book In Good Company is about opening that door and inviting people in. Whether it's a last-minute dinner with neighbours, a family feast, a curry night in the middle of winter, or a summer picnic under the shade of a tree.
"I hope people pick up the book, maybe find a few recipes they'll add to their own repertoire, but I hope they find some motivation to, say, call up a couple of girlfriends and say come over on Friday night and I'll just do a big, what I call, a chatter platter, and we'll hang out.
"I'm like everyone else, over the past few years many of us have lost that confidence, or we think it's a bit hard, or we feel everyone is too busy but there's something quite special about having people over.
"No one cares if your house is a mess, or the food's not fancy, just cook a big bowl of pasta and serve it with a salad.
"Ultimately it's all just about being together. It's about belonging, being looked after, looking after others in return and feeling like you're part of something, even if it's only for a night.
"And I promise if the food is tasty, the table has been set with a little care, the drinks are flowing and the music is playing, it will be the best of times. And don't we all need more of those?"
- In Good Company: simple, generous recipes and ideas for get-togethers and good times, by Sophie Hansen. Murdoch Books, $39.99.
Chocolate, hazelnut and espresso cake
I have been making this cake for many years. It was a staple and popular dessert item when we used to run farm tours and lunches every month and here's why: it's really stable, in the sense that you can make it a day or two ahead, wrap it tightly and it will be even nicer. Plus, the flavour combination of chocolate, hazelnut and coffee is a proven winner, and it's not at all hard to throw together. I've served this with poached pears on the side, with ice cream, with cream and just on its own. It's always beautiful.
This recipe makes quite a large cake but it does last well for a few days and a little slice with coffee makes a lovely morning tea. Plus it freezes well.
3/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 shot espresso coffee
2 3/4 cups chopped dark chocolate
1 cup unsalted butter, chopped
100g hazelnut meal
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp vanilla extract
a pinch of salt
thick cream, to serve
fresh raspberries, to serve
1. Preheat the oven to 150C. Grease a 24cm spring-form tin. Line the tin with baking paper.
2. Using an electric mixer, beat the eggs and half the brown sugar for at least five minutes or until pale and fluffy and doubled in size.
3. Combine the remaining brown sugar, coffee, chocolate and butter in a heatproof bowl over a saucepan of simmering water. Cook, stirring often until you have a smooth, shiny mixture.
4. Pour the chocolate mixture into the egg and sugar mixture and very gently fold together. Add the hazelnut meal, baking powder, vanilla and salt and gently fold together.
5. Transfer the batter to the cake tin and smooth the top. Bake for 40 minutes or until the cake feels just set in the middle. Leave to cool for 10 minutes before removing it from the tin.
6. Serve the cake warm or at room temperature, with cream and raspberries.
Serves 6-8 (with leftovers)
Easy tomato and chorizo stew
This warming, flavour-punch of a tomato stew is a pretty wonderful thing to pour into a big mug and wrap your fingers around on a windswept headland on a cool spring evening. Not all of us have our own headland for such occasions, but you probably have a garden, nature strip, nearby park or beach. Pack this stew in a thermos for your dinner picnic and serve it with some warm sourdough or garlic bread. We crumbled a little of Fiona and Adam's fresh goat's cheese over the stew and it added such a lovely note of creamy, tangy goodness - highly recommended!
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp fennel seeds
2 chorizo sausages, diced
3 garlic cloves, sliced
2 brown onions, diced
1 carrot, finely diced
1 celery stalk, finely diced
1 cup white wine
800g tin whole peeled tomatoes
250g soft goat's cheese, to serve
1. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the fennel seeds and cook for one minute or until aromatic. Add the chorizo and cook for a few more minutes, then add the garlic, onion, carrot and celery. Cook, stirring often, for 10 minutes.
2. Pour in the wine and cook for one minute or until the liquid bubbles and reduces a little. Add the tomatoes and cook, breaking everything up with a spoon. Reduce the heat, season with salt and freshly ground black pepper and gently simmer for about 30 minutes, stirring every now and then so the stew doesn't catch and burn on the base of the pan.
3. Either serve the stew straight away, or transfer it to a thermos to keep hot and head off to your picnic. Crumble the goat's cheese over the stew and serve it with some lovely warm sourdough or garlic bread.
You could use this stew as a base for a quick and easy seafood stew. Bring the stew to the boil, then reduce the heat to low and add 800g mixed seafood (e.g. mussels, firm white fish, calamari). Cook for about five minutes or until the fish is cooked through and the mussel shells have opened.
I love how this pie is shaped like a giant Easter egg! It's the perfect dish to serve on Good Friday if eating fish that day is something you observe. But don't save it for just one day of the year - this pie is wonderful for a picnic, to take to a friend or for an easy meal any day. The idea for shaping and cutting the pie like this comes from one of my favourite books, Salt and Time by Alissa Timoshkina. And speaking of time, please give yourself plenty to make this, because if you do the filling the night before or at least a few hours ahead and it's nice and cold when you come to assembly, it's much easier to handle.
2 cups full-cream milk
400g ling or other firm white fish, pin-boned
300g salmon or trout, pin-boned
1 1/2 tbsp butter
1/4 cup plain flour
400g hot-smoked trout or salmon
1 quantity sour cream pastry (see below)
4 hard-boiled eggs, quartered
1/2 cup flaked almonds, toasted
about 1 cup soft herbs, finely chopped (I use a mixture of parsley, dill and sorrel)
grated zest of 1 lemon
2 tbsp single cream
1. Wash the leek well, then finely chop the white and green parts. Put the green part in a deep-sided frying pan with the milk and a good grinding of black pepper. Heat until just at boiling point. Add the ling and salmon, cover and simmer for five minutes. Turn off the heat and set it aside for five minutes. Check the fish is just cooked through, then transfer it to a plate.
2. Strain the milk, discarding the leek. Wipe out the pan and place it over medium-high heat. Add the butter and the white part of the leek and cook for a few minutes or until the leek has softened. Add the flour and cook for a minute or so, stirring well to make a thick paste. Pour in a little of the warm milk and stir until the mixture thickens. Gradually add the remaining milk and cook, stirring, until you have a thick sauce.
3. Break up the ling, salmon and smoked trout and gently fold it into the sauce. Season well with salt and pepper and pop it into the fridge to cool completely.
4. Meanwhile, make the pastry according to the recipe, removing a third of the pastry and wrapping it separately. Chill both wrapped pastry portions for 30 minutes.
5. Roll out the larger pastry portion on a lightly floured surface into a large oval, about 3mm thick. Gently fold the chopped egg, flaked almonds, herbs and lemon zest into the fish mixture. Spread the mixture over the pastry, leaving a 3cm border.
6. Roll out the remaining pastry into a smaller oval and drape it over the top of the filling. Crimp the pastry edges together so you have a dome-shaped pie. Re-roll any pastry trimmings and cut out shapes to decorate the top of your pie. Pop the pie into the fridge for 30 minutes (or up to a few hours until you're ready to cook it).
7. Preheat the oven to 200C. Whisk the egg and cream together, brush it over the pie and sprinkle the pie with a little sea salt. Bake for 35-40 minutes or until the pastry is golden brown. 8. Serve the pie hot, warm or at room temperature. Delicious!
Sour cream pastry
2/3 cup sour cream
1 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into cubes
2 cups plain flour, plus extra for dusting
1/2 tsp sea salt
Put the sour cream, butter, flour and salt in a food processor and blitz for a few seconds until just combined. Turn the pastry out onto a work surface and gently bring it together into a disc. Wrap the pastry and pop it into the fridge for 30 minutes.
Roasted carrots with yoghurt, hazelnuts and harissa
This is an insanely tasty dish that's a great side but also brilliant on its own with some warm Turkish bread or tossed greens. Big flavours, easy to put together and using some nice solid seasonal veg to great appeal ... yes, please!
olive oil, for drizzling
1 1/2 cups Greek-style yoghurt
1 handful rocket
1/2 cup hazelnuts, roasted and roughly chopped
1 small handful of dried rose petals (optional)
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp harissa, or to taste
grated zest and juice of 1 lemon
1. Preheat the oven to 200C. Peel and slice the carrots into batons. Arrange on a baking tray, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Roast the carrots for 45 minutes or until cooked through and beginning to caramelise at the edges.
2. For the harissa dressing, whisk together the olive oil, harissa, lemon zest and juice and season to taste. (Perhaps start with just one tablespoon of harissa and add more to taste - some brands are hotter than others.)
3. To serve, spread the base of a big platter or bowl with the yoghurt, top with the carrots and rocket and then drizzle the dressing over the top. Finish with the hazelnuts and rose petals, if using.
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