Child of the 80’s

Growing up in Adelaide’s north-eastern suburb of Modbury North in the early 1980’s was probably the same as any other Australian suburb at the time in a food sense; you had a charcoal chicken shop and a fish and chip shop, both within walking distance from home.

If it was a special occasion, we had a local Chinese Restaurant called The Rickshaw Inn. If it was a really special occasion (buggered if I knew the difference), we went to another Chinese Restaurant called The Golden Harvest, which was a whole extra 5 minutes away in the car. I think they had bigger Lazy Susans. 

If you wanted something a little more exotic, you had a choice of Italian or… actually, that was probably it. There were landmark Adelaide Italian restaurants like Marcellina, La Trattoria, Don Giovanni’s or La Tombola; your ‘authentic’ Italian restaurants, set up by the Italian immigrants in the 50’s or 60’s, complete with the bottles of Chianti in baskets and bona fide red gingham tablecloths. Unfortunately these were places where our parents went without us. Instead, we got to go to Pizza Hut when it was still a dine-in family restaurant and no 13 11 66 pizza delivery.

Cooking at home was largely your more average cuts of meat; forequarter chops, rump steak… all done to near death under the grill or vertical grill… and sausages, all with lashings of tomato sauce and three boiled vegetables (usually potatoes, carrots and beans) or salad. Looking back, it was all pretty uninspiring, but at the time it wasn’t bad; we just didn’t know how good things could be.

Nowadays, we have 24-hour cooking shows on Foxtel’s Lifestyle Food channel and we have Masterchef blasting into our lounge rooms 6 days a week, with people rushing down to their local Coles on a Saturday morning for beef short ribs, daikon and the ingredients for master stock (only to find there are no short ribs or daikon).

Cooking is now far more central to people’s lives. Right around the country there are hundreds of people having a crack at cooking their two-minute noodles, sous-vide, muttering to themselves “…if that Dani can make it into the top 4, then surely I can belt out a Goats Curd and Vanilla Bean Cheesecake with Poached Cumquats and Spiced Pumpkin for the family’s Sunday night dessert”.

Of course, it wasn’t always like that. In the 80’s there would have been some Keith Floyd drunken shenanigans on the ABC every now and again, but that was it. And we weren’t trying to emulate Keith… Although who secretly wishes they could chain-smoke and drink a couple of litres of wine whilst trying to belt out a Toulouse Cassoulet in front of a camera. Now THAT’S talent, Gary and George!

 The majority of Australians were and probably still are indebted to Women’s Weekly (and Margaret Fulton) for teaching them how to cook. Everyone’s mum probably owns the Women’s Weekly Children’s Birthday Cake Book. I have both the original edition (re-released in February 2011 as a ‘Vintage’ Collector’s Edition) and a newer version, published in 2006.  

One of my earliest recollections of cooking was via mum’s Women’s Weekly recipe card library. I think they re-released them a couple of times in the early 80’s after their initial run in the late 70’s, so it probably wasn’t the first time around that I recall going shopping with mum and picking up the weekly collection of cards from the kiosk counter at our local Coles for $1.99.

There were 24 categories of cards to collect; from Best Beef Recipes to Fine Foods from Faraway Places, plus 9 ‘Special Edition’ categories, featuring Family Meals from the Freezer and Dramatic Dinner Parties.

With well over 600 recipes to choose from, I can only ever remember three recipes that were ever made, albeit on a moderately frequent rotation; Lemon Chicken, Quiche Lorraine and German Coffee Cake.

Sometimes you just crave the things that were familiar and comforting in your childhood. Being taken back to a time when things were at their simplest; no debt, no stress, no work issues, no sore backs… although on Sunday it might have just been the hangover. For some reason, that German Coffee Cake was the familiar and comforting thing that lingered in my mind… again, it might have just been the hangover.

So I began my search using my good friend, Google. Mum always referred to the German Coffee Cake as “Deutsche Kuchen”, which I now know translates to “German Cake”. Gee, I’m lucky that narrowed it down! I did however, come across a whole set of the Women’s Weekly recipe cards on eBay for $50. I resisted the temptation to place a bid and moved on.

Getting a little frustrated with what was becoming a futile exercise, I finally narrowed my search for “German Coffee Cake” to Australian only websites and lo and behold, there it was. I knew it was the recipe I was looking for because it contained one particular ingredient that prior to me finding this recipe, I could not remember what it was, but as soon as I saw it, I knew. 

It was mashed potato. Other than the fats in the milk, there are no other ingredients in the cake that provide the moistness that you’d normally get from eggs and butter. Maybe mashed potato was used as a substitute when dairy was scarce.

After a quick pantry and fridge inventory, I was happy that I had all of the ingredients required, with the exception of mixed peel. I can’t ever remember mum putting mixed peel into the cake she made. She isn’t the mixed peel type. I am the mixed peel type and as a substitute, I decided to add the zest of a lemon, given that lemon juice was listed as an ingredient… which I later forgot to add anyway.

So, here it is…

German Coffee Cake

1/2 – 3/4 cup mashed potato
3/4 cup sugar
1 cup sultanas
1/4 cup mixed peel… or not, if you’re not the mixed peel type
1 1/2 cups of milk
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 cups self-raising flour

Crumble Topping

1/2 cup sugar
60g butter
1/2 cup self-raising flour
2 teaspoons nutmeg

Firstly, it clearly struck me that the recipe wasn’t made in the same vein of preciseness as most baking recipes are. So based on this and the fact that I was quickly losing interest in the whole thing, I decided to measure things by eye.

There was one big potato in the pantry and it looked as though it would yield anywhere between 1/2 and 3/4 of a cup of mash. So I cooked the potato and put it through the ricer. It looked close enough… in any case that was the last potato, so I pushed on and added what looked like three-quarters of a cup of sugar and creamed the two ingredients together to resemble a muddy, yet sweet potato sludge.

To the sludge, I added the milk, sultanas and lemon peel, plus some chopped up dried apple because I was living on the edge and decided to get even more daring. This is probably what led me to forget the lemon juice.

I was also trying to minimise the amount of dishes to clean up afterwards, so being even more rebellious, I decided not to sift the flour into the liquid. I don’t think it mattered. Instead, I slowly folded the flour into the liquid with a spatula to create a quite dense and very stubborn cake batter… stubborn, in that it stuck to everything, me included.

Once all of the flour had been incorporated, I transferred the batter into a lined baking tray, which in my case was a small (34cm x 22cm) Scanpan roasting pan, which afterwards would require very little or no cleaning. I wet my hands to smooth out the cake batter so it was evenly distributed in the pan.

The crumble was a no-brainer. Like any crumble you’d make for… a crumble. I chopped up the butter and thew it into a bowl, working the butter into the remaining ingredients with my finger tips until I had something that loosely resembled crumble. Once I’d sprinkled the crumble evenly over the cake, it went into a 180 degree celcius oven for 40-45 minutes. At the 20 minute mark, I was a bit concerned that my crumble was browning too much, so I chucked some alfoil over the top and took it off with five minutes to go.

The end result was exactly how I remembered it; a moist, slightly dense, yet yielding crumb – all thanks to that mashed potato. Next time, I think I’ll add even more apple, less sultanas and keep the lemon zest in place of mixed peel. As an 80’s classic (in our kitchen, anyway) made some 30 years later, I think it hit the mark and it might just very well continue to get some rotation in our kitchen in 2011 and beyond.

We’ve come a long way in 30 years. My eldest daughter (who’s 4) has grown up in a house with a kitchen full of diverse ingredients which she probably thinks is the norm, although her idiot daddy is probably a little too obsessed; six or seven different vinegars, including 30-year old balsamic, fresh parmesan (not that toe jam-smelling one in the green container that we had as kids), prime cuts like eye fillet and standing rib roasts, making sushi or onkonomiyaki with kewpie mayonnaise and tonkatsu sauce. She’s even had truffles.

I’ve given up saying (mainly to myself) at the dinner table, “I never had [insert food item here] when I was 4”. Mind you, she’d probably be just as happy with a forequarter chop, done to near death under the grill with lashings of tomato sauce and three boiled vegetables.

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