One emu egg, so bush cooks claim, was the equivalent of a dozen chicken eggs. A bit hard to come by these days, emu eggs were once a bush standby and, it is said, turned out a light, fluffy sponge cake.
Although baking developed slowly because of a lack of equipment, it became one of Australia's great culinary traditions, particularly in the bush. It began in a campfire with the famed Australian bread, damper, baked in the raked embers.
An early settler, Louisa Meredith, wasn't impressed. She called it "a stiff dough, made of flour, water and salt, kneaded into a flat cake 2 or 3 inches thick, and from 12 to 18 broad.... When cut into, it exceeds in closeness or hard heaviness to the worst bread or pudding I have ever tasted."
There is no question that damper has improved since then, thanks to leavening agents like baking soda.
Another of Australia's culinary icons is the Anzac biscuit. As the name implies, the biscuits date from World War I, when they were baked to be shipped to troops in the trenches at Gallipoli.
They were made from coconut, rolled oats, flour, baking soda, golden syrup and drippings. Drippings, or suet, were used so the biscuits wouldn't go rancid during the long sea voyage. Drippings were a baking standby before the days of refrigeration allowed even salted butter to be kept for long.
These days, cooks Down Under are putting more of an Australian stamp on desserts. Australia's native bush fruits and berries are increasingly being used as flavorings. Their potential has been recognized only relatively recently, thanks to the efforts of people like Vic Cherikoff, whose company, Bush Tucker Supply Australia, organizes gatherers.
He has a network of more than 1,000 foragers around the country. Because bush fruits are small and found in limited quantities, usually in remote areas, they are largely suitable only for use as flavorings--in combination with other fruits to extend them, for instance--rather than as a major component of a dish.
The only Australian native that is widely available and commercially cultivated is the macadamia nut, but wattle seeds from a native acacia, once toasted, give a wonderful flavor to ice cream and are growing in popularity. They taste like roasted hazelnuts but have the texture of coffee grounds; their applications are many, with one of the most successful being their use in Anzac biscuits.
Australian chefs are also using Asian spices in desserts. They might turn up in a baked custard flavored with cardamom or in a tropical sweet fruit soup. With such an array of fruits and flavors available, the creation of desserts is limited only by the imagination of the cook.
BAKED CARDAMOM CUSTARD WITH WHISKEY, FIGS AND ALMONDS
2 1/3 cups milk
1/2 cup superfine sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons water
3 1/2 tablespoons whiskey
3 tablespoons superfine sugar or to taste
1 strip of orange peel
8 dried figs
12 blanched whole almonds
Rinse saucepan with cold water (this prevents milk solids from sticking, making pan easier to clean). Pour milk into pan and heat slowly until small bubbles form along edge of pan.
Meanwhile, beat together sugar, eggs and cardamom in large bowl. Slowly pour hot milk over egg mixture, beating until well blended. Pour custard into deep 1-quart buttered baking dish. Place dish in baking pan and pour hot water into pan to reach halfway up sides of dish. Bake at 325 degrees on center rack until just set, about 1 hour (custard should still be a little wobbly in center, as it will cook in its own heat after being removed from oven).
While custard is cooking, stir together water, whiskey and sugar in saucepan and cook over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Bring to boil. Add orange peel and figs and stew gently until figs are plump and tender, about 10 minutes. Add almonds. Let figs cool in syrup.
To serve, spoon warm custard into individual plates. Spoon figs, almonds and syrup alongside.
Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
424 calories; 139 mg sodium; 223 mg cholesterol; 10 grams fat; 67 grams carbohydrates; 13 grams protein; 1.94 grams fiber.
RUSSIAN CREAM WITH RASPBERRIES COOKED IN THEIR OWN SYRUP
2 1/2 teaspoons unflavored gelatin
1 tablespoon cold water
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons superfine sugar
1/4 cup whipping cream
1 3/4 cups plus 1 tablespoon buttermilk
1/2 pound fresh raspberries
Dissolve gelatin in bowl with 1 tablespoon cold water for 5 minutes. Set aside.
Using tip of paring knife, scrape vanilla seeds out of bean into small pan. Add 1/2 cup superfine sugar and 1/4 cup whipping cream and heat over medium heat until sugar dissolves. Add dissolved gelatin and stir until melted. Let cool. Stir buttermilk into cooled mixture.
Whip 4 1/2 tablespoons whipping cream in bowl until soft peaks form. Use rubber spatula to fold whipped cream into buttermilk mixture. Rinse 4 (2/3-cup) molds with cold water. Divide buttermilk mixture evenly among molds. Cover and refrigerate 4 hours.
Crush a few berries with fork in small pan. Stir in remaining 3 tablespoons superfine sugar. Cook and stir over medium heat until sugar dissolves. When bubbling, add remaining raspberries and immediately remove from heat. Stir to distribute juices evenly, then let cool to room temperature.
To serve, unmold each cream by briefly dipping base of mold into warm (not hot) water and then inverting onto flat dessert plate. Spoon berries and juices around each cream. Serve at once.
Makes 4 servings.
Each serving contains about:
285 calories; 132 mg sodium; 48 mg cholesterol; 13 grams fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 6 grams protein; 1.70 grams fiber.
RAISIN AND ALMOND ANZACS
Scant 1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
3/4 cup shredded coconut
1 cup flour
3/4 cup sugar
2/3 cup raisins
1/3 cup almonds, chopped
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/3 cup water
1/2 cup butter
2 tablespoons corn syrup
Combine oats, coconut, flour, sugar, raisins and almonds in large bowl.
Heat baking soda, water, butter and corn syrup in small pan until butter melts. Stir butter mixture into dry ingredients, mixing thoroughly.
Form 1 1/4-inch mounds on 4 buttered baking sheets, spacing them 2 inches apart. Flatten each mound with rubber spatula. Place 2 sheets in oven and bake at 300 degrees until evenly golden brown, 17 to 20 minutes. Remove trays from oven and immediately bake remaining biscuits.
Cool Anzacs on trays 2 minutes, then transfer to wire racks with metal spatula to cool completely. Once cool, store in airtight container up to 1 week.
Makes about 30 Anzacs.
Each Anzac contains about:
106 calories; 38 mg sodium; 8 mg cholesterol; 5 grams fat; 15 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.17 gram fiber.