Sunday, April 10, 2011

10 wonderful things to do in Autumn (while eating earl grey tea and pear cake)

Isn't Autumn wonderful? I don't think I've felt so excited about it since I was a teenager who thought she hated hot weather (in fact, she loved it). The afternoons are warm and the evenings are cool, things begin to turn different shades of red and gold all around you and the light is just perfect. I've been spending early-morning train trips to work fantasising about perfect ways to spend this precious time - so here are 10 of my ideas, with a new recipe too, naturellement. I hope you enjoy, and please do share the Autumn love and leave your own ideas.

1. Bake an earl grey tea and pear cake. I'm eating a slice of this right now as I type, alongside a cup of tea and it's delicious. The recipe is based on one I found in this month's issue of Donna Hay magazine for an earl grey tea cake. Hers had a couple of grated apples stirred into the mixture which I've swapped out for diced pear. Diced, the fruit is a bit more of an event in the cake, in that it turns into little pockets of sweet ripe cooked pear in a moist base dark and rich with brown sugar, pureed dates and strong earl grey tea. It reminds you a little of a really good banana cake in terms of texture and appearance, but is altogether more appropriate for Autumn afternoon teas and post-dinner, DVD break snacking. Recipe follows.

Couldn't get enough of Tourism Victoria's 'Visit Make Believe' Dandenong Ranges campaign, in which the above picture appears. Ophelia will float by any second...

2. Day-tripping. The mornings are cool but the afternoons are glorious, so heading out early on a day trip to the countryside is perfect in Autumn. If you're in Melbourne, the Yarra Valley and the Dandenong Ranges are stunning at this time of year and are under an hours drive from Melbourne. Visit gorgeous gardens, drink wine, go antiquing, eat lavender scones. For a (more indulgent) weekend away at this time of year, visit Bright, where there's an Autumn festival each year. There's lovely B&Bs, but also gorgeous camping grounds. Eat chestnuts, go on lazy drives to nearby farms and towns, sit by the fire in the evenings, eat full cooked breakfasts, or:

3. Go apple-picking. If you live in the city, you can go a long time without seeing the actual source of the things that you eat. Going to an orchard in apple season can remedy this, reminding you that food actually does grow on trees. If you do take a trip to Bright, visit nearby Wandiligong, a very small town (around 250 people) full of orchards. You can pick apples there, but also pears and nuts. For closer to Melbourne and Australia-wide, see this list. Take a picnic and some Robert Frost.

4. Buy some beautiful tea. Treat yourself to a new blend of loose-leaf tea and get your teapot fired up! I know everyone goes nuts over T2, but I love the Earl Grey loose-leaf at Tea Party, as it has plenty of bergamot and smells absolutely gorgeous. They also do French Earl Grey (with rose petals), Lady Grey (with lemon and pretty blue cornflowers) and a whole host of other gorgeous herbal, black, white and green tea blends. You can visit them at the Victoria Market, or you can order online. Yay for internets!

5. Watch Douglas Sirk films. Spend Sunday afternoons getting lost in and inspired by Douglas Sirk's technicolor world. You can - and should! - read more about the man here.

All That Heaven Allows (1955)

Imitation of Life (1959)

Written on the Wind (1956)

6. Knit a scarf. Haberdashery stores in town - Clegs, Lincraft, etc - have their range of wools in now. Maybe you should knit a scarf? Relaxing Autumn afternoons are perfect for tea-drinking and knitting, and by Winter you'll have a cosy scarf to wrap around your neck. If you need more convincing, just look at these showgirls passing the time: they're loving it! Scarves are very easy, so they're the perfect project if you're new to knitting, and they don't require much yarn, so aren't expensive to make. Patons yarns have a good learn-to-knit guide you can purchase in stores, or get it online for free here.

7. Make some pickle. Make like it's WWII (not really) and preserve some bounty for gifts and the months ahead. I made a rhubarb chutney this week with rhubarb and apples from the garden, but you don't need a glut of produce or even a whole heap of time to whip up a few jars of pickles. Try this cauliflower pickle; you only need one head of cauliflower, a few onions, vinegar and spices and a few old jars. Buy some cheap gingham fabric and tie squares over the top with string. Presto! Homemade hostess gifts with loads of charm.

8. Buy new tights. New tights or stockings are my favourite budget-friendly way to get through the shift in seasons with a little touch of luxury. Student incomes might not allow new bracelet-length dresses or suede boots, but if I'm feeling shabby, a new pair of fancy patterned tights will freshen a repetitive outfit and put a little spring back in my step. I love browsing for hosiery at department stores, but often you can't beat prices online. My current favourite online stores for hosiery are Modcloth, MyTights and Fantasy Lingerie. Yes, that's a dirty dirty lingerie store, but they've got some great stockings if you can look past the crotchless body-stockings. And plastic pants, heh. P.S. Don't type 'stockings' into google image search with children around. P.P.S. No, I don't own Louis Vuitton tights. But yes, I'd like to.

9. Make hot mulled cider. Because the evenings can get cold in Autumn, you should make some mulled cider. Yep, that's cider warmed with spices (and a little brandy, if you're feeling jolly). It's so lovely to greet visitors coming in from the cold with. Think of it like a cold-weather sangria. I've been making this recipe for Mulled Cider with Calvados from epicurious and it's great. But once you've got the formula down, there's tonnes of room to play.

10. Humble, humble porridge. I couldn't be happier about porridge, or oatmeal, being back on the menu for chilly mornings. To take a simple serve of porridge and turn it into a bowl of Autumn, top with cinnamon, some bits of walnut or good maple syrup. Try grating an apple into the mixture before cooking, adding some frozen blueberries, or swapping your regular rolled or instant oats for multigrain or a barley and oat combination. I find these keep me full for longer and provide more sustained energy to get me through until lunchtime and to run from bears, etc.

earl grey tea and pear cake
Adapted from donna hay magazine, Apr/May 2011

Makes 1 loaf

1 cup (or 140g) chopped fresh dates
1 tsp baking soda (bicarb)
3/4 cup (or 180ml) strong earl grey tea
3 small - medium pears, peeled, cored and diced
1 1/4 cup (or 185g) self-raising flour
3/4 cup (or 135g) brown sugar
150g unsalted butter, melted
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 eggs

1. Preheat oven to 170°C (335°F). Grease and line loaf tin with baking paper.

2. Put the dates and baking soda in a bowl and pour over hot tea. Set aside for 10 minutes. Using a stick blender or mini food processor, blend until smooth. Set aside.

3. Place flour and sugar in a large bowl and whisk to combine and aerate. Add chopped pear and stir gently to combine. Add melted butter, vanilla, eggs and date mixture. Mix well.

4. Pour into lined loaf tin and bake for 50 - 55 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the centre comes out clean. Allow to cool in tin 10 minutes, then turn out to cool completely.
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