Tuesday, February 22, 2011

When Home is… A Mother’s Cooking. An interview with Food Blogger Jules Clancy

For Jules Clancy, food scientist, self-published cookbook author and creator of the minimalist home cooking blog Stonesoup, cooking has been a passion since childhood.

Little has changed during the intervening years; ‘It's how I relax and unwind but also how I earn my living these days. The thing is I never get sick of it. There are always so many new things to explore and perfect. Food and family are intimately linked for me. It's all about sharing. My boyfriend loves his food as well and we spend hours talking and planning what we're going to cook and eat.’

Growing up as the eldest of five children on a sheep farm, Jules says her mother was an ‘inspirational country cook’. ‘But it wasn’t until I went to boarding school and had to make do with convent food that I realised just how special my mum’s cooking was.’

Jules says that her mother was ‘a pretty classic country Australian cook’; one who created comforting, nurturing classics – roasts, steak, spaghetti bolognaise – that her family never tired of. ‘It was simple but she always used fresh, high quality ingredients. She was also a whizz when it came to cakes and sweet treats. She loved to spoil us!’

And it was ‘something sweet’, such as her pikelet or scone recipe, that Jules first learnt to cook as a small child.

When a little older and at boarding school, Jules and her mum had a ritual; ‘Mum would always make me a batch of lamingtons to take back to school with me after holidays. I used to help her. We'd sit at the kitchen bench and chat and just hang out. My contribution was rolling the lamingtons in the coconut. I still remember how good it tasted licking my chocolatey coconut fingers when we were done.’

Her mother’s kitchen was the centre of the family’s home. ‘It, like me, was a child of the 70s with green linoleum floors and bright yellow bench tops. It had big windows and was always where the action was happening. Everyone used to naturally gravitate to the kitchen. If someone popped in to visit we'd always sit in the kitchen drinking tea. It was rare that our formal lounge room got used.’

After Jules’ mother died suddenly in 2007, Jules decided to pull together a collection of her recipes for family and friends and with the help of her sisters she tested and photographed all the classic family dishes they had grown up with.

It was an easy task, says Jules; ‘My mum was very organised and kept her favourites in a little recipe book so they were all automatically included. It also helped that I have three sisters who also contributed their favourite things that mum had taught them - it was funny but we all remembered different things.’

Once finished, Jules realised she wanted to share her mother’s simple, no-fuss Australian recipes with a broader audience, so decided to self-publish the book to celebrate the ‘recipes that anyone can learn to cook and that everyone will love to eat.’

Titled and the love is free, the book has been well received. ‘I've had some really lovely emails and notes from people who used to eat the same things when they were kids. And some touching notes from people who have also lost their mums to cancer.’

So, was it cathartic to revist her mother’s kitchen without her mother? ‘It was super comforting and fun. I was especially happy when I followed the recipes exactly and they ended up tasting just like mum used to make.’

‘Normally I can’t help myself and tinker with a recipe so naturally things end up tasting different. I felt like mum was in the kitchen with me when I stuck to the recipe - a wonderful reward.’

For those times when Jules wants to feel closer to her mum, she simply cooks her mother’s tuna mornay. ‘We called it tuna dish and when I make it with processed cheese slices it makes me feel like mum made it especially for me.’

Cooking this meal always evokes strong memories such as; ‘Helping mum mash up the tuna with a fork. Sneaking bits of hot penne when mum wasn't looking and licking the bowl while we waited for it all to bake.’

While Jules has her eyes on her jam-making pot and the big ceramic mixing bowls her mother used for mixing the Christmas cake each year, she was lucky enough to inherit her sunbeam mix master. Originally belonging to her grandmother, it is stuck on high speed. ‘This is fine,’ says Jules, ‘because I mostly just use it for making pavlovas or whipping cream’.

As Jules writes in her book, ‘no family recipe book would be complete without a recipe for pavlova or ‘a pav’ as it was known in our house.’

So enjoy this classic Clancy family recipe, particularly as we near the end of summer…

‘The strawberries from Mum’s garden were always the fruit of choice when in season but mixed berries from the shop would also work when we didn’t have access to mum’s bursting-with-flavour fruit. In the height of summer sliced mango and passionfruit were also lovely.’

‘A word of warning. While it seems so easy to be able to leave the pav to cool and finish cooking in the oven, it can be dangerous. Especially if you have an electric oven like my Mum. I remember one time I’d made a pav and left it to cool and then came back a few hours later, completely forgetting what was in the oven and turned it on to preheat for dinner. Woops. Lets just say that burnt pavlova is not a pretty sight.’

2 egg whites
1 1/2C (330g or 12oz) caster sugar
pinch salt
dash vanilla extract
1t white vinegar
1t cornflour
3T boiling water
whipped cream, to serve
fresh fruit, to serve

Preheat oven to 150C (300F). Line a baking tray with baking paper and grease lightly in a circle about 20cm (8in) diameter. Place all ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer and beat for 10 minutes or until the sugar has dissolved and the mixture is very stiff.

Spread mixture out on the tray to cover the greased circle. Place in the oven and decrease temperature to 120C (250F) and bake for 1 hour. Turn off oven and leave door ajar for pavlova to cool in the oven.

To serve, carefully peel foil from the base of the pavlova and place on a serving platter. Generously smother the top with cream and decorate prettily with fresh fruit.

The pavlova base will keep in an airtight container for a few days but once the cream has been added its best if served straight away.

To find out more about ‘And the love is free’, click here.
To read Jules’ blog, Stonesoup, click

All photos © Jules Clancy

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