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A recipe for Italamingtons (aka Italian lamingtons)

28 May

If it’s acceptable to put vegemite in lasagne, kangaroo on pizza, and mango in a tiramisu, then surely no one can argue the toss when it comes to turning the lamington – one of Australia’s greatest afternoon tea cakes – into an Italian.

While wide-spread Australianisation of Italian dishes is common, the reverse is not. So I took the lamington – that small square of sponge cake, dipped in a chocolate icing and rolled in desiccated coconut – and created the Italamington – a bit difficult to say, but very easy to eat…

Italian lamingtons

It was not an easy process. While I believe in culinary innovation, I am against the outright bastardisation of national dishes (see Crimes against pizza for more on this view).

So, in order to ensure the respectful renovation of the lamington, a series of discussions were convened with a variety of experts to understand the true essence of this Antipodean symbol.  Notably, these discussions included the rather helpful Gaby from Nourished Within and the rather less helpful David, former afternoon tea correspondant at the Balmain Village Voice. Wine was also involved.

After much heated debate, it was decided that a cake could still proudly hold the title of lamington if it retained its traditional shape, was made from sponge, and was dipped and rolled. All other elements – the ingredients and the method – were up for grabs.

Controversially, we also decided that while purists believe the jam and cream sometimes found in the middle of the lamington to be heresy, a filling was not just acceptable in the making of this cross-cuisine sweet but vital in communicating its new found Italianità.

The sponge cake, as the foundation, was important. I wanted it to be as Italian as possible, so instead of the typical Australian sponge, I decided to be a tosser, I mean, to be as authentic as possible, and consult Pellegrino Artusi’s 1891 Italian food bible, Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. While it only asked for four ingredients , one of them was “Hungarian flour” which needed to be “dried on the fire or in the sun”.  Also, as the KitchenAid had not been invented yet, it wanted me to work “the dough for half an hour”.

That all sounded rather too authentic for my liking, so I halved the recipe for the Italian Sponge Cake in the Larousse Gastronomique, and, miracle of miracles, despite involving the separation of yolk from white and the dreaded instructions “fold carefully”, all usual indicators of epic baking failure for me, the success of the sponge seemed to imply I could actually bake. Hooray!

Italian sponge cake

After letting the sponge go stale, I sliced it through the middle horizontally, drizzled it with Frangelico and, after downing a glass or two of the afore mentioned liqueur, was inspired to fill it with a mix of crushed hazelnuts, ricotta and espresso coffee. It was then cut into small squares, dipped in Callebaut dark chocolate and coated in crushed flaked almonds.

Frangelico on cake

Making the filling

Spread filling on cake

Sandwich cake together

Sponge cut in squares

Chocolate icing

Drizzling chocolate

Roll in almonds

Single Italamington

The verdict? Well, from the mouth of Romano Cammarano, a man not known just as my father but a critic of food so fearless he makes Anton Ego  look like Marcia Hines, “this is the best things you have ever cooked. You are allowed to make it again”.

The Italamington is a triumph of Italian and Australian know-how and ingredients. Try it, and see what you think….

Italamingtons (Italian Lamingtons)

Ingredients

Sponge cake:

  • 1 cup caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 5 eggs, separated
  • Pinch of salt
  • ½ cup plain flour
  • ½ cup corn flour
  • Butter, caster sugar and cornflour to grease and dust cake tin
  • 1 tablespoon Frangelico (optional)
  • 220 g flaked almonds, finely chopped

Icing:

  • 220 g dark couverture chocolate, chopped
  • 1 cup thickened cream

Filling:

  • ¾ cup ricotta
  • 2 tablespoon thickened cream
  • 1 tablespoon hazelnuts, crushed
  • 1 tablespoon espresso coffee
  • 1 tablespoon caster sugar
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla

Method

For the sponge:

  1. Preheat oven to 160°C.
  2. Grease a 20x20cm cake tin and dust with a mix of caster sugar and cornflour.
  3. Beat the sugar with the vanilla and egg yolks until well combined.
  4. In a separate bowl, beat the egg whites with a pinch of salt until stiff.
  5. Fold the egg whites into the egg yolks until just combined.
  6. In another bowl, sift the plain flour and corn flour together.
  7. Fold flour mixture carefully and quickly into the eggs.
  8. Pour mixture into prepared tin.
  9. Bake for about 40 minutes. The cake is done when it is light golden in colour and a skewer inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean.
  10. When the cake is cool, slice through the middle and leave it to go stale (about a day).

For the icing:

  1. Put the chocolate and cream in a metal bowl.
  2. Sit the metal bowl above a saucepan of simmering water. Do not let the bowl touch the water.
  3. Stir with a metal spoon until the chocolate has melted. Leave aside to cool.

For the filling:

  1. Blend the ricotta, cream, hazelnuts, espresso coffee, sugar and vanilla in a food processor until well combined.

To assemble the Italamingtons:

  1. If using, sprinkle the Frangelico over the inside halves of both sides of the sponge.
  2. Spread one half with the filling and sandwich cake halves together.
  3. Using a serrated knife, carefully cut sponge into 25 small squares.
  4. Take one cake square, insert a skewer through the middle and rest over the top of a small bowl. Carefully drizzle the chocolate mixture over the square, using a knife to help it spread.
  5. Roll in crushed almonds and place square on wire rack to set.
  6. Repeat until finished and keep in fridge until ready to serve.

Bibliography:

  • Artusi, Pellegrino. Science in the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2003.
  • Larousse Gastronomique. Great Britain: Hamlyn, 2009. 

Can Mrs Lance Rawson fix my Heston Blumenthal problem?

8 Dec

Yesterday, my copy of Heston Blumenthal at Home arrived in the mail. Study be damned! Deborah Jean Kasnitz’s Work, Gender and Health Among Southern Italian Immigrants in Melbourne wasn’t going anywhere, so, tempted by Heston’s dear face peeking into his fridge on the cover, I decided I could have a quick flick through.

Heston Blumenthal at Home book cover

Study or Heston? What would you choose?

Three hours later, after delighting in the Salted butter caramels wrapped in edible cellophane, wondering aloud if the Scallop tartare with white chocolate really worked as a flavour combination, marvelling at the regal purple colour of the Red cabbage gazpacho and wishing I could try a big scoop of that famous Bacon and egg ice cream, I had a problem.

I needed a sous vide machine, a vacuum packer, a cream whipper and a pressure cooker. And a digital probe. And maybe a refractometer too. And I needed them now. You wouldn’t send an astronaut into space without the right equipment, so how could I be expected to go boldly into the new world of scientific kitchen exploration without them? Answer: I couldn’t.

Ok, so it’s a very first world problem, but what’s a true Heston fan to do? Especially when that Heston fan is a poor PhD student? I tell you despair nearly drove me back to Work, Gender and Health Among Southern Italian Immigrants in Melbourne but, just in time, I remembered the rather prolific Mrs Lance Rawson, who wrote the 1895 classic, The Antipodean Cookery Book and Kitchen Companion. Mrs Rawson has advice for when you’re a woman and you just need something new, like a bonnet, for example:

The husband is a creature of appetite, believe me, and not to be approached upon any important matter, such as a new bonnet or a silk dress, on an empty stomach.

This is good news. Against all the odds, I actually have a husband! So if I want a water bath, all I have to do is feed him well?

Yes, says Mrs Rawson:

Man must be cooked for. He’ll do without shirt-buttons, and he’ll do without his slippers, but he will not do without his dinner, nor is he inclined to accept excuses as regards under- or over-done meals after the first week or so of the honeymoon. If there be any young girls reading these pages who are contemplating marriage in the near future, take an old wife’s advice and learn to cook, for only by feeding him well will you succeed in gaining your husband’s respect and keeping his affection.

Well, I can cook, but oh no! It might be too late:

Let me suggest to prospective brides that they should stipulate for a stove if marrying a Bushman. A man will promise anything before marriage, very little after.

Damn it, have I missed the boat? Should I have vowed “I promise to love and obey but only if you get me everything listed under Specialist kit on pages 389 to 393 of Heston Blumenthal at Home.“? I can’t believe I went with traditional vows! So stupid of me…

Or, here’s a novel idea, maybe I could work and earn my own money to buy a sous vide machine?

Nah, Mrs Rawson wouldn’t approve, and I just couldn’t let her down.

Bibliography:

  • Blumenthal, Heston. Heston Blumenthal at Home. London: Bloomsbury, 2011.
  • Rawson, Mrs Lance. The Antipodean Cookery Book and Kitchen Companion. Melbourne: George Robertson &​ Co., 1895.

Interesting food styling from 1962

1 Dec
Pacific Grill
The Pacific Grill, above, is “suitable for any meal of the day”, according to Anne Mason’s A Treasury of Australian Cooking, 1962.
Bibliography:
  • Mason, Anne. A Treasury of Australian Cooking. London: Andre Deutsch, 1962. 

An Australian food history fantasy

23 Nov

In 1770, Captain Cook claimed the east coast of Australia for England. In 1788, the First Fleet came with everything they planned to eat and grow. After an initial period of near starvation, where the white settlers ignored Aboriginal methods of gathering food, the colony eventually got off the ground. The diet of these people, for the next 170 years or so, was pretty much a meat-rich version of what they ate in England. One of the chief concerns of their diet was not taste but “softness or ease of chewing”. I guess that explains all those overcooked vegetables then.

Painting of Aborigines eating and cooking

Joseph Lycett’s 19th century painting Aborigines cooking and eating beached whales, Newcastle, New South Wales. National Library of Australia – http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2962715-s11

Now, imagine if, the Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch, who are all thought to at least have sighted Australia in the 17th century, had decided to drop anchor and establish colonies. Say the Spanish had claimed the area near Adelaide, the Dutch taken far north Queensland and the Portuguese south-east Western Australia. Imagine too, that these European settlers hadn’t written off Aborigines as people who “barely existed”, and learnt a trick or two from their traditional foodways. While we’re imagining, let’s pretend the Aborigines had used their crops to trade with these new settlers for things like cooking implements, chocolate, vanilla and other spices.

Would all of this have resulted in the development of distinct regional cuisines, a mash-up of  colonial and indigenous ingredients and cooking methods? Would we now have a canon of dishes that included paella studded with kangaroo paws and witchetty grubs, poffertjes flavoured with lemon myrtle and quandong custard tarts? Would our national dish be wombat cooked in an underground oven, covered in a chocolate sauce?

In We are what we eat: ethnic food and the making of Americans, Donna Gabaccia explains that the arrival of various colonial powers settling in different areas of the States, combining  their own foodways with those of local indigenous populations, resulted in creole cuisines. Trade and curiosity, amongst other factors, helped these creole cuisines to form and, over time, they became distinct regional cuisines. It’s a fascinating read and prompts one to imagine how food in Australia could’ve been really quite different.

But the Spanish, Dutch and Portuguese didn’t claim any part of Australia and  while the Aborigines did have an agricultural tradition, as Bruce Pascoe taught us, there was no significant trade. As a result, we don’t have any regional cuisines – with the possible exception of the German-influenced food of the Barossa Valley – which means, according to anthropologist Sidney Mintz, we don’t have a cuisine at all.

What we do have, however, is a way of eating that combines great product (tomatoes largely excepted), a food-interested population and the influences of cuisines and people from all over the world. It might’ve taken more than 170 years to get to that point, but thank god we did get there. Which is probably just as well, because chocolate-covered wombat doesn’t sound like anything I would want to eat…

Bibliography:

  • Bacon, Jenny. “A brief history of immigration to Australia,” In Tucker in Australia, edited by Beverley Wood. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1977, 98-102.
  • Cahn, Audrey. “Australians in the early Twentieth Century,” In Tucker in Australia, edited by Beverley Wood. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1977, 53-63.
  • Davey, Lois . Margaret MacPherson and F. W. Clements, “The Hungry Years: 1788-1792,” In Tucker in Australia, edited by Beverley Wood. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1977, 24-46.
  • Gabaccia, Donna R. We are what we eat: ethnic food and the making of Americans. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Mintz, Sidney W. Tasting food, tasting freedom: excursions into eating, culture, and the past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.
  • Shelley, Cheryl. “The original Australians – Aboriginals in the Northern Territory,” In Tucker in Australia, edited by Beverley Wood. Melbourne: Hill of Content, 1977, 19-23.

Crimes against pizza – 1. Vita Brits Pizza

2 Nov
Vita Brits Pizza

Vita Brits Pizza - A criminal act?

For too long now, the pizza – that most humble of Neapolitan inventions – has been the target of overzealous recipe writers, “creative” chefs and idiot advertising types who think it is best made with canned dough and served with teriyaki sauce, chicken, pineapple, and both fetta and cheddar cheese.

While there have been many moves to defend the pizza, mostly from Italians concerned that their culinary heritage is being destroyed, little has been done to name and shame the worst perpetrators of these horrifying and indecent acts.

Over the next few weeks, this special Lamingtons & Lasagna investigation promises to open cold cases where the rights of the pizza were trampled over, its victim impact statement never heard. Until now, that is.

While Lamingtons & Lasagna does not advocate a return to culinary luddism – where what was authentic was sometimes even deadly – the “pizzas” in this series have jumped the shark, or, as the kids these days might say, nuked the fridge, from imaginative interpretations to crimes against cuisine.

So, without further ado:

Crime number 1: Vita Brits Pizza

Accomplice: Australian Women’s Weekly

Date of crime: Wednesday 15 October 1958

Motive: There’s only so much money a company can make selling breakfast food for breakfast. But if they give you “delicious, new round-the-clock recipes” which mean you can enjoy “different and delicious luncheon or supper treats”, then they can make a lot more money.

Modus Operandi: “Butter VITA BRITS (use one or two VITA BRITS per serve) and place them on a greased oven tray. Place thin slices of cheese on each VITA BRIT. Cover this with a little well-drained tinned tomato, or peeled fresh tomato slices. Season with salt and pepper and top with another thin slice of cheese; dot with a very little butter. Bake in moderate oven about 10 minutes or until cheese has melted and slightly browned. If desired anchovies may be added (one fillet for each serve).”

Evidence: Vita Brits Pizza

Verdict: Guilty

Sentence: Never eat Vita Brits again (which is fine, because I prefer Weet-Bix anyway).

See more Crimes against pizza

Bibliography:

  • “Delicious, new round the clock recipes.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 15 October 1958, 75.

Thoroughly modern macaroni

6 Oct

Just when you think you know how 19th Century Australians cooked their pasta, along comes a recipe that changes everything.

Before we go on, however, you have to know there was no such thing as pasta in the 1800s – it was called macaroni. And it was most commonly cooked in a sweet pudding , much like a rice pudding, in a bake of some sort, like macaroni cheese, or as an accompaniment or garnish to different meats  (ox tongue garnished with macaroni anyone?).

There were, of course, exceptions, mostly revolting-sounding ones which involved brown gravy and batter, but none are as exceptional and out of place as the recipe below:

Maccaroni Dressed with Oil.

Take two cloves of garlic, slice them very finely crosswise, and set them to boil in a gill of fine olive oil, adding during the process two or three anchovies, well washed and boned, and cut in small pieces, and a dozen or more olives, cut in two and stoned.  When the slices of garlic assume a golden color, pour the whole over 1/2lb of boiled string maccaroni (Vermicelli or Spaghetti) well drained; mix well, and serve.

It comes from Australian Town and Country Journal in 1890 and, culinarily for its time, it’s a freak.

Not only does it contain garlic and olive oil – both at least a good seventy years away from real acceptance in the mainstream Australian pantry; it doesn’t contain any kind of protein – unless you count anchovies – which I don’t;  and it mentions spaghetti – which, while not unheard of in this period, is rare. The recipe is not prefaced with it being Italian, or foreign or unusual in anyway. It’s just a normal recipe for normal housewives, unlike any others before it, and a good way ahead of any others that follow it.

Unfortunately, there’s no author given for the recipe and that is a real shame, because they should be congratulated for their foresight…  of course, this could mean the recipe was plagiarised, in which case I take the congratulations back…

Bibliography

“Maccaroni Dressed with Oil,” Australian Town and Country Journal,  26 April 1890, 34.

A recipe for ravioli…

26 Sep

For kicks these days, I spend a lot of time looking for Italian recipes in Australian cookbooks. The one below comes from the 1961 edition of the P.W.M.U. Cookery Book. It left me asking one question. Read it, and see if you can figure out what that question was:

Ravioli

1lb. rissole steak, 1 cup diced celery, 1 chopped onion, 1 dessertspoon curry powder.

Heat a dessertspoon of oil and fry onion. Add curry powder, salt and pepper. Add steak and brown a little. Add 8 oz. tin tomato soup, celery and flavourings. Cook 1 cup spaghetti and add. Serve sprinkled with grated cheese.

The question, dear readers, is why? Why on earth is this recipe titled ‘Ravioli’? If ravioli, in its broadest definition, can be described as a stuffed pasta, this recipe is just, well, stuffed…

Bibliography

  • Jenkins, Gwen, Hanna, Betty, McMillan, Muriel and Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union of Victoria P.W.M.U. cookery book (Rev., enl., redesigned and completely reset ed). Melbourne: Cheshire, 1961.

Spaghetti sandwiches

7 Jul
Spaghetti sandwich illustration

Spag sanga anyone? Lorraine Hannay's illustration of a spaghetti sandwich in Richard Beckett's Convicted Tastes.

I have a confession to make. I have never eaten a spaghetti sandwich. A tangle of tomato-tinged, soggy and sweet can-confined spaghetti has not ever presented itself to me as a viable sandwich filling. The concept is utterly foreign, which isn’t surprising given I grew up in a household where  a can of spaghetti was like bacon to a Jewish Rabbi – not only a banned substance, but one thought of with a fair amount of  disgust.

Not so for my eighth generation Australian husband who recalls with delight chomping down on buttered white bread crammed with slimy spaghetti.

He wasn’t the only one. Richard Beckett recalls that spaghetti sandwiches were once very much a part of the culinary landscape:

Its construction was quite basic – a spoonful of tinned spaghetti between two pieces of buttered bread. Along with baked beans, it was always an integral part of a plate of mixed sandwiches at city tearooms – now vanished – run by large department stores on their top storeys.

When exactly the spaghetti sandwich made its debut is hard to know. What we do know is that to make this historic sandwich you need a can of spaghetti, and that process was kicked off in the late 19th Century by the Franco-American company in the US.  By the 1920s it was joined by versions from Heinz and Campbells, amongst others.

Heinz, which didn’t start local production till 1934, claims that US miners introduced their canned products to Australia during the gold rush, along with their shovels and picks and dreams of striking it rich too, no doubt.

However, by 1917, you didn’t need to know an American miner to get your hands on a can of spaghetti – you would’ve found it along with other imported products like baked beans, cream of tomato soup and “many other desirable lines of distinctive quality” at HG Wilson and Co, “The Family Grocer” on Swanston Street in Melbourne, just opposite St Paul’s Cathedral.

By 1924, the spaghetti sandwich must’ve been sufficiently established as a culinary entity as to allow the Geisha Café in Townsville to advertise it as “very, very nice”.  It might sound like they employed Borat to do their copywriting, but the Geisha was keen on selling its special  spaghetti sandwich with its “special coffee”, as, well, a “special”:

Spaghetti sandwich ad 1917

"You could ask for nothing more delightful" than a spaghetti sandwich, according to Cafe Geisha's ad in The Townsville Daily Bulletin,10 September 1924.

In 1935, the Barrier Miner of Broken Hill published Miss Marojorie Mann’s recipe for Hot Savory Spaghetti Sandwiches. It was sent in as an entry for an “Afternoon Tea Delicacies” competition. It didn’t win:

Hot Savory Spaghetti Sandwiches

Slices of crisp toast, well buttered, some thin slices of ham, sliced tomato, grated cheese (if desired), 1 tin spaghetti, parsley

Reheat the spaghetti thoroughly. Heat the ham in a little milk – either in the oven or over the fire. Place a thick layer of spaghetti on a piece of toast. Cover with another slice on this. Place heated ham and sliced tomato and cover with another slice of buttered- toast. Garnish with a sprig of parsley and sprinkle thickly with grated cheese. Serve very  hot.

Which begs the question, am I game enough to try this so-called “delicacy”? I think it’s time to confront my fears about this most foreign of foods,  and while I’ve barely recovered from my last spaghetti-led carb overload, I think, as they once said about Whitlam, it’s time…

Bibliography

  • Beckett, Richard, Convicted Tastes: food in Australia. Sydney : George Allen & Unwin, 1984, 204
  • Levenstein, Harvey. “The American response to Italian food, 1880 – 1930” in Food in the USA, ed: Counihan, Carole, M, Routledge, 2002, New York, 78.
  • “Groceries.” The Argus, 23 May 1917, 12.
  • “Spaghetti Sandwiches are Very, Very Nice.” Townsville Daily Bulletin, 10 September 1924, 3.
  • “Afternoon Tea Delicacies.” Barrier Miner, 14 September 1935, 4 

Australian ricotta – Part 2

9 Mar
Dairy Board Ad

It's a carnival of Australian cheese and ricotta is well and truly on the float. From The Australian Women's Weekly 10 October 1973.

The 1970s open for ricotta with still more advertising from the Australian Dairy Board who are seemingly obsessed not only with making sure that we know it is “Australian Cheese. The most protein for the least money”, but also how on earth to pronounce it. Say after me everyone: ri-co-tta. Now that wasn’t so hard was it?

Perhaps it’s understandable that the ADB was keen for us to have a firm understanding of what ricotta was, because in the 70s and 80s, the cheese suffered from a bad case of SMD – schizophrenic media disorder – especially in The Australian Women’s Weekly.

First it was bad for our heart. In a 1975 article entitled A Doctor’s Advice on How to Avoid a Heart Attack, Dr Irving Levitas, the man who made sure smoking was never the same according to the author of the article, makes it clear ricotta is bad news:

There are a number of cheeses made with skim milk, including mozzarella and a Norwegian cheese called Jarlsberg. You don’t have to stop serving lasagna, for instance; just substitute skim-milk mozzarella and leave out the ricotta cheese.

 In 1977, however, the Australian Dairy Board (those guys again), made us an offer we couldn’t refuse:

 We promise to keep your food interest high, your calorie intake low with these tasty and delicious Dairy ideas.

 Ricotta was part of the promise and the ad suggests eating ricotta as a dip or mixed in with fruits like strawberries, pears, pineapples or melons.

Diet Dairy Foods

Dairy dieting with ricotta. From The Australian Women's Weekly, 7 December 1977.

Ricotta’s status as a diet friendly food seems to explode from this point onwards. If you wanted to follow the diet plan in How to be Forever Thin in 1976 you could have “1 medium size serving of ricotta or cottage cheese”.

In a 1981 Weight Watchers article trumpeting foods which were “off the banned list and on the programme”, you were allowed 1/3 cup ricotta cheese with a ½ cup of  grapefruit segments, a slice of toast, a teaspoon of margarine and a beverage for breakfast on Day 6.

While ricotta was firmly entrenched by the early eighties as the dieter’s friend, we also see it feature in several fatty friendly forms – the ricotta cake, pastry and slice – hence the schizophrenia.

In 1977, Mrs C.L Angelico of North Ringwood, Victoria won $15 for her “not too sweet” Italian ricotta cake. It was quite different from the 1979 Italian ricotta cake recipe in an “All Occasion Cakes” feature which called for packet chocolate cake mix and lashings of Grand Marnier. 

Italian ricotta cake made from a chocolate cake packet mix... just like in Italy! From The Australian Women's Weekly, 1 August 1979.

In 1978, it’s Miss J Kaufler of Haberfield, NSW’s turn to claim the $15 prize for “a rich, buttery pastry (which) holds an unusual filling of ricotta cheese, cherries and nuts.”

The lesson out of all of this? Ricotta will make you lose weight. Unless you add a bucket of flour, sugar, eggs, milk and chocolate. Then it won’t. Really, I should’ve been a nutritional scientist with deductions like that…

There might be a part 3 in the next few weeks to bring ricotta up to the present day, but if you missed the first sizzling instalment, be sure to check out Australian ricotta – Part 1.

“Australian Fresh Cheeses Explained,” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 October 1973, 45.
Guinness, Daphne, “A Doctor’s Advice on How to Avoid a Heart Attack.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 20 August 1975, 18-19.
“Low calorie, high interest (it’s dairy dieting).” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 7 December 1977, 166.
“How to be forever thin.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 6 October 1976,  25-26.
“Prize recipe.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 15 June 1977, 87.
“Prize recipe.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 5 April 1978, page 98.
“All Occasion Cakes,” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 1 August 1979, 86
“Weight Watchers Magazine Supplement.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 10 June 1981, 2, 3, 4, 6, 7, 9, 10.

Australian ricotta – Part 1

25 Feb

Some people understand the cost of living by the price of bread or milk or McDonald’s hamburgers. For me, it’s ricotta. A staple in my kitchen, I could not live without the stuff. Fresh, soft and still warm, I cannot resist scooping a few teaspoonfuls out of the container while I’m putting away the shopping. Days later, I’ll eat it with jam or honey on toast, with spinach in a pie, on spaghetti with eggplant and tomato, or stirred through pasta, made into a sauce with a bit of hot water, a handful of parmesan, a grating of nutmeg and a sprinkle of pepper. Comfort food at its best.

 But back to the index. When I lived in Leichhardt, in Sydney’s inner west, I used to buy ricotta for around $7.99 a kilo.

Later, when married life saw me move to the food wasteland that is Maroubra Beach, I had to make the admittedly-short journey to Maroubra Junction where I paid a shocking $10.99 a kilo.

Still, I realised I was better off than the poor ricotta-ripped off in Manly who were paying $15.99 a kilo. As for David Jones, in the city, they were suffering and continue to suffer similar stupid prices for a product that is not even a cheese – rather it’s a by-product of it.

In Melbourne, my home town, at the much loved Footscray Market, you can get it for $4.99 a kilo. And that, right there, is why I’m moving back to Melbourne.

All of this, however, got me thinking about when this most versatile of dairy products made its debut in the great brown land of Australia.

 The first mention of it I have found is in Tasmania’s daily newspaper, The Mercury, in 1930. In a short account of Christmas in Rome, the author describes the meal on Christmas Day as starting with soup:

…in which there are “cappelletti”, little cases of macaroni in the shape of hats, which contain a mixture of meat, brains, and “ricotta”, a kind of cream cheese.

It’s not till 1943 that there’s evidence of my favourite whey-based product for sale. The Cairns Post features an ad for Brightways Grocery where I would’ve been able to pick up 2 pounds of ricotta for sixpence. I’m not sure where that would sit on the index today, but what is surprising is that ricotta sits amongst the not-very-Italian ingredients of gooseberry jam, beetroot and the mysterious-sounding luncheon beef.

Perhaps the reason this ad wasn’t more targeted at the small Italian population of North Queensland was because many Italians there had either just been released from internment following Italy’s surrender to the Allies, or they were still incarcerated. Either way, anti-Italian sentiment in Queensland was running high.

 By 1954, however, back in Tasmania, it’s all about the Italians. A classified ad in The Mercury reads:

AAAAAA. TELL YOUR ITALIAN FRIENDS we have now BACCALA, Coppa, Bologna, Salame, Ricotta, Olio, Polenta. THE PANTRY, 37 Elizabeth St.

In the 1960s, ricotta became an ingredient that was featured in the odd Australian Women’s Weekly recipe, usually with the caveat that it could be substituted with either cottage cheese or cream cheese.

Publication in the Weekly generally means you’ve made it into the mainstream but in 1966, the Australian Dairy Produce Board thought the public still needed to be educated about the cheese and, maybe more importantly, where it’s from. An ad for “Australian ricotta” went something like this:

Ricotta ad

This ad appeared below an advertorial recipe for Heavenly Cheese Cake, which featured creamed cottage cheese, on 28 December 1966 in the Australian Women's Weekly.

The preoccupation with making sure the public understood that ricotta was now Australian continued into the late 60s. In a 1968 cookbook add-on about cheese again in the Australian Women’s Weekly, ricotta is one of many cheeses featured. Its provenance is given as “Italy” and we are told it cost “about 50 to 60 cents per lb”, however we are also told that it was one of many cheeses that used to be imported but was now made in Australia.

I find it quite hard to believe ricotta was ever imported, as it’s a fresh and highly perishable cheese. But if the bible of Australian womanhood says it is so, then it must be so:

cheeses of the world

Ricotta cheese is in the top left corner behind the glass of cottage cheese in this editorial spread from The Cheese Cook Book, an add-on to the Australian Women's Weekly on October 9,1968.

This brings us up to the 1970s which brought us flares, punk rock and a constitutional crisis. But you’ll have to wait for Part 2 to find out what happens next in ricotta’s journey from a cheese for the eye-talians to a common ingredient many of us eat and cook with all the time. Bet you can’t wait, right?

“Christmas at Rome.” The Mercury,5  February,1930, 4.
“Brightways Cairns.” Cairns Post, 30 September, 1943, 2.
“AAAAAA. TELL YOUR ITALIAN FRIENDS.” The Mercury, 14 January 1954,19. 
“Heavenly Cheese Cake.” The Australian Women’s Weekly, 28 December 1966, 6.
“Cheese adds that gourmet touch.” in The Cheese Cook Book in The Australian Women’s Weekly, October 9, 1968, p 2-15.