Stress-free Christmas dessert: Individual apple crumbles

Apple crumble

Kids, light your photos properly. Colour correction is a pain..

Everyone who has asked me what I'm making for Christmas lunch gets the same answer: nothing, if I can help it. Cooking is great, but at Christmas time all I want is to relax.

I want to drink a few beers, gorge myself on cheese and dips, enjoy the sun (woo Southern Hemisphere!), and chat to friends and family, all without having the nagging worry that the meat and vegetables might not be done at the same time. But if you do find yourself in charge, you can (and should) make things easier for yourself by getting prepared. Dessert lends itself particularly well to preparation, and with these individual apple crumbles you can serve your guests dessert straight out of the oven without any anxiety on the day.

Apple crumble is a favourite of mine because it's hard to unforgivably screw up. Even if the topping isn't perfectly crisp or the apples are a little crisp it's still pretty tasty (and some good custard on the side is even better for masking any flaws). A good trick I've seen involves adding oats to the crumble to boost flavour and texture. I used to do that until one day I ran out of oats and substituted wholemeal flour. With wholemeal flour you maintain the crumbly texture most people are used to, but still get that earthy, wheaty flavour you get with the oats.

The best thing about this dessert is that it can be easily scaled depending on the number of guests and prepared ahead. Refrigerate the uncooked crumbles until it's time, then on the day put them in the oven an hour before you want to serve dessert.

Individual apple crumbles

Ingredients (makes 2 apple crumbles):

  • 1 small apple (tart granny smiths are my favourite for this)
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • g plain flour
  • g wholemeal flour
  • g unsalted butter at room temperature
  • g sugar
  • A pinch of nutmeg

1. Preheat an oven to 180ºC/350ºF. Peel, quarter, and core the apple, then cut each quarter into quarter-inch thick slices. Layer these in small ramekins until 3/4 full and sprinkle each with 1/2 tsp of lemon juice.
2. To make the crumble topping, place the butter, flours, sugar, and nutmeg into a bowl and combine by mashing with the back of a fork. You won't be shocked to learn that the texture should be crumbly but not completely bone dry. Taste a little to determine if it needs any more sugar or wholemeal flour.
3. Divide the crumble mixture in halves and use it to top each of the prepared ramekins. Pat them down rather firmly to ensure a compact package, then fluff the top of the crumble mixture up to ensure plenty of surface area to make it nice and crumbly.
4. These can be refrigerated now, or put straight into the oven for 45 minutes or until golden and crunchy on top. If you're cooking them from the fridge, allow an additional 5-10 minutes in the oven.

Pork belly hotpot

Pork belly hotpot

My friends and I have a semi-regular thing we like to do called 'corkasian'. The premise is simple: go to one of the many bustling restaurants in Chinatown (Cafe Kowloon, BBQ City, and East Taste usually) and take advantage of their tasty asian food and criminally cheap corkage ($1.50 per person! What?!).

At our first visit to BBQ City we ordered a pork belly hotpot dish that at the time was, quite simply, amazing. The pork was so tender you could cut through it with chopsticks, and the sauce was aromatic and perfectly seasoned. A few weeks later we revisited BBQ City and its famed hotpot, but it wasn't the same. It could have been the fact that I was taking an alcohol-free day, but even my more jovial tablemates agreed. Still, the seed had been planted and I have made it a personal mission to make my own delicious pork belly hotpot.

This recipe is adapted from Simon Bryant's red-cooked camel recipe. It's as simple as anything, too. Just put all your ingredients into a pot, then say goodbye to them for 6 hours. Unfortunately it's quite hard to photograph well, but do take my word that it tastes much better than it looks.

Pork belly hotpot, before cooking

See you in 6 hours!

Pork belly hotpot

  • 800g pork belly, in thick slices
  • 3 cups boiling water
  • 1/2 cup dark soy sauce
  • 1/2 cup shaohsing wine
  • 1 tbsp rice vinegar
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 3 cloves of garlic, finely sliced
  • 1/2 a medium onion, diced
  • 30g sliced dried shiitake mushrooms
  • 3-4 cm piece of ginger, sliced thickly (skin on is fine)
  • 2 star anise
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 2 pieces of dried mandarin peel

1. Preheat an oven to 150ºC/300ºF. Select a heavy, oven-safe casserole dish that will fit the pork belly snugly. Place all of the ingredients except the pork belly inside, and stir to dissolve the sugar.
2. Submerge the pork belly in the liquid and cook, covered, in the oven for 5-6 hours.

The first time I made this I ate it as is, straight out of the oven. However pork belly being what it is, a lot of fat melts into the sauce. Because the pork skin and connective tissue also produce a lot of gelatin, my usual technique of refrigerating and pouring the liquid through a strainer doesn't work here (because the sauce sets as well as the fat). Instead while the sauce was warm I strained once to get hold back the solids, then used Jen's handy method. At this stage you can also pick out the whole spices so no one gets an unpleasant surprise.

So did I do it, did I recreate that first glorious meal? I'm getting there. I reduced the amount of dark soy from the original recipe by a third, but I could still afford to knock that down just a little more, adding a bit of stock to mellow things out. Also, while the star anise is absolutely crucial, two might be too much. However those are minor tweaks in search of perfection — even short of perfection this is a damn fine way to treat a belly of pork.

Bacon you can drink through a straw

Prawn & bacon risotto

As someone who never thought he would utter the sentence "I really don't like bacon in x" this is difficult for me to admit. I don't like bacon in risotto.

Let me clarify. Bacon: amazing. Risotto: delicious. Together: no thanks. There's something about the clash of textures, too harsh, too chewy, that I can't get behind. It's a shame, really, because the flavour of bacon is perfect for risotto. Salty, meaty, and slightly smoky? How can that not work with starch, cheese, and butter?

Referring back to my original risotto guide, the solution came from first principles: risotto being stock, rice, and the-rest-of-it. There's no real bacon-flavoured rice — If exists it likely comes from a packet and tastes horrible — and I've already complained about making bacon the-rest-of-it, so what we need is bacon stock. Hey guess what? I have bacon stock!

Bacon stock

Ingredients (makes about 1L):

  • 350 g bacon, diced quite small
  • 1 tsp tomato paste

1. Cook the bacon slowly in a large heavy-bottomed pot until it is deeply caramelised. Expect this to take a while. Pour off any fat and return to a medium heat.
2. Add the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute, then top up with 1.5-2 L (6-8 cups) of water and bring to a medium simmer. Simmer for 2 hours, then pour through a fine mesh strainer.

A few notes: Dicing the bacon before cooking means that there will be more delciously caramelised surface area to infuse into your stock. Don't add any salt to it either (you shouldn't be adding salt to your base stock anyway) as the bacon and tomato paste are already pretty salty. Finally, bacon can be very fatty, so you will want defat it. Either cool it in the fridge overnight and strain out the solidified fat, or use this handy trick.

With your bacon stock made, bacon-flavoured risotto is easy as pie. I used my basic risotto recipe, with some minor modifications. Because I failed to follow my own advice (salted the bacon out of habit, and didn't defat out of impatience) my stock was both salty and fatty. As a result the risotto didn't need extra butter or cheese. The bacon fat emulsified with starch from the rice to make a creamy risotto, and sans cheese it went perfectly with butter-poached prawns (screw you, heart disease). A pinch of cayenne pepper perked it up, and I was set.

Nerding it up with potato gratin

Potato gratin

Potato gratin makes me anxious. I'm not anxious to eat it, of course — who would be? — but rather I never feel in control. You're expected to submit to the oven a tray of soupy, raw potatoes and end up with a creamy, tender, caramelised final product. What if the potatoes are undercooked, though? What if it's too wet? It's just too much pressure.

I'm a big fan of scalable formulas in cooking. I have a few stored away already: pasta (1 egg per 100g flour), shortcrust pastry (1 part butter, 3 parts butter, 4 parts flour), and quiche custard (1 egg, 1/3 cup cream, 1/3 cup milk) all work pretty well for the amounts I cook. What's more, by using these over and over I get a sense for what 'just right' looks and feels like, to the point where in some cases I don't need to use them at all. What I need is a formula for potato gratin.

I should warn you now that this entry doesn't contain a tried-and-tested formula, just some preliminary notes. I searched Google for "potato gratin recipe" and looked at a handful of results to see what ratio of potatoes to cream were used. Exclusion criteria were recipes that mixed cheese in with the potatoes (rather than simply on top), recipes with milk or other liquids (because it just gets tricky), and those that didn't include potato weight (seriously, what the hell is '1 average potato'?).

The ratio, r is simply volume of liquid (ml) / weight of potatoes (grams). So for any given weight of potatoes, multiply by r and that's how much liquid to use. Hypothetically.


In addition to learning that I am a huge nerd, we can also see that the ratio tends to be around 0.45. Of course, there's more to potato gratin than potato and cream. There's cooking time, oven temperature, and the shape of the dish. A shallow gratin will cook quicker, a hotter oven will brown the top faster, and a longer cooking time will reduce the cream more. Within the next couple of weeks I hope to test these results using different ratios and dish sizes. Then I'll eat the results and put on 10kg. It'll be awesome.

Meanwhile, here's the recipe for a gratin I made the other night which worked out really well. You'll see that I wussed out and cooked the potatoes in cream first, but hey, Thomas Keller does it so it can't be that bad.

Potato gratin


  • 725 g désirée potatoes, peeled
  • 1.25 cups heavy cream
  • 1/2 cup water
  • A few gratings of nutmeg
  • 1 tsp dijon mustard
  • 2 cloves of garlic, halved
  • 3 sprigs of fresh thyme (or 1/3 as much dried thyme)
  • 5 peppercorns
  • 1 bay leaf
  • Salt, to taste

1. Use a mandoline or sharp knife to cut the potatoes into thin slices. Wrap up the thyme, bay, peppercorns, and one clove of garlic in cheesecloth, and tie with string to make a neat little package.
2. Combine the cream, water, mustard, and nutmeg in a high-sided frying pan, then add the herb parcel and bring to a very low simmer. Simmer for 5 minutes to begin infusing. Salt the cream very generously — it should taste about the upper limit for what would be palatable, but not ridiculous1.
3. Preheat the oven to 180ºC/350ºF. Add the potatoes to the infused cream (keep the herbs in there as well) and cover. Simmer very slowly until the potatoes are just tender.
4. Rub the sides of a medium-sized baking dish with the cut side of a halved clove of garlic, the discard the garlic. Remove the potatoes from the pan into the baking dish, being careful not to break them as they'll be somewhat fragile. Discard the herb parcel.
5. Pour the cream over the potatoes, and bake until the potatoes are tender and the crust is golden.

(1) Once you add the potatoes it won't be excessively salty.

Baked ziti

Baked ziti

Lately I've been on a bit of an American food bender. Perhaps recent events have given me another reason to admire you freedom-loving crazies, as pulled pork, BBQ ribs, and the Rueben sandwich have all graced my table at some point over the last month. That will all get written up in due course, but today I wanted to show you my baked ziti. What other dish combines pasta, bolognese sauce, and mozzarella cheese, and still manages to remain a wholly American invention?

I can feel myself reaching the limit of what 6 seasons of The Sopranos taught me about baked ziti, so to avoid looking like a fool I will stop right there. The recipe below is for an individual serving baked in a bowl — which is convenient when you're cooking for one (cue the violins) — but it could just as easily be scaled up to fill a whole casserole dish. And just to be parochial, it uses the warm weather bolognese I wrote about the other day.

Now I'm no Italian-American, so I would love for someone who knows what they're talking about to tell me how I've butchered their classic*. Who knows, maybe one day I can make a batch that even Livia wouldn't criticise.

Baked ziti

Ingredients (makes one serving):

  • 110g ziti/rigatoni, cooked to al dente
  • 3/4 cup warm weather bolognese
  • 2 tbsp cream
  • Salt & pepper to taste
  • Grated mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat an oven to 180ºC/350ªF. Combine all of the ingredients except the cheese, and adjust seasoning. Transfer this to an oven safe bowl, scatter generously with grated mozzarella, and bake until golden on top.
2. Pat yourself on the back for freezing batches of bolognese sauce.

* It just occurred to me that my so-called baked ziti contains no ziti.