We caught up with Liz Harfull, author of The Australian Blue Ribbon Cookbook, to find out why we should buy her book. Here's what she had to say.
Why should we buy your book?
The real gold in the book is the secret tips for every recipe, not just from the cooks but the judges too. Visiting these cooks and watching them work made me realise that recipes usually only give you the basics. There are all these other things that experienced cooks do that are not written down - tricks and techniques passed down through the generations that are the real secret to success. So I worked hard with every cook to capture their recipe and these tips so readers have as much information as possible. A bit like having an adopted grandmother standing beside you in the kitchen and sharing her knowledge as you go. And this might sound odd, given it's a "cookbook", but as a writer I hope people buy it for the stories too, and the wonderful photos and memorabilia that celebrate the Australian tradition of agricultural shows. To me it's all about the people, their incredible spirit of generosity and their communities. The recipes are just a bonus!
Where's the easiest place to start?
If you have had no experience baking, I would suggest you try Shirley's Orange Cake - a one-bowl wonder with simple ingredients and a tasty end result. Or you could try what is one of the most popular children's show classes in Victoria - hedgehog. Its a delicious chocolate slice topped with icing and hundreds of thousands. On the preserves side, Geoff Beattie provides some fabulous jam-making tips with his pineapple jam recipe.
What if we're looking for a challenge - what's the toughest recipe?
Some people would say the perfect sponge is hard to crack. There is so much mystery around the techniques for this recipe, and every cook I have spoken to has different theories on the best eggs to use and the best equipment. There are several different versions in the book and probably the most challenging of them all is the Chocolate Sponge, provided by 13-year-old Matt, who has five generations of experience behind him. But he has very generously provided a whole page of special tips, so nervous cooks have plenty of guidance. Jean's jam sponge roll is also a test of a cook's skill. It's an old-fashioned version of this traditional country standard that requires a delicate hand, and even Jean doesn't always pull off the perfect end result every time she makes it.
Do we need any specialised gear or ingredients to make the most of it?
No. That is the beauty of this type of cooking. It's from the traditions of country farmhouse cooking, in the era before gadgets and special equipment for every single task. So while an electric mixer might be handy, a bowl, a wooden spoon, some scales and measuring cups, a good selection of pans and a large saucepan for preserving is all you need to make just about everything in the book. The same is true when it comes to ingredients. One of the things I love about this type of cooking is that it rarely involves a trip to the supermarket, let alone a specialty store. In the country, people used what they had ready access to - flour, sugar, and fresh butter, milk and eggs from the farm. Most of the recipes use minimal ingredients that are pretty basic if you do any kind of baking, and the preserves are even simpler, and cheap to make, especially when the fruit is in season.
And what's the single best thing in it?
I could get into serious trouble playing favourites, but I reckon Vaughan Wilson's Jaffa Friands are pretty good, and so is Bruce McDonough's Nectarine and Macadamia Frangipane Tart. They both come from a new era in show cooking, which reflects what people are cooking now in the home. But I love Monica's Fruited Supper Cake too because it's an unusual old-fashioned recipe that took me straight back to my childhood and something my mother used to make, and I am very partial to George Davidson's Madeira Cake. It's so rarely made these days, but so simple and nothing like the manufactured version people may have tasted. And don't get me started on Joyce Fendler's Mixed Mustard Pickle - it takes a simple sandwich to whole other level!
Any last thoughts to get us over the line?
Make sure you read the cook's tips before you make a start. They are pure gold - knowledge that has often been handed down through generations of cooks.
Liz Harfull is the author of The Australian Blue Ribbon Cookbook, published by Allen & Unwin, RRP $39.99