Searching for recipes to add to her kitchen repertoire, Leila McKinnon discovered a treasure trove - and published it.
Australia's restaurants, chefs and produce are acknowledged as among the best in the world. Our baristas have taken over Europe, flat white by long black. But it's what's going on in our suburban kitchens that deserves the wildest of nationalistic chest thumping.
I should know: I've stuck my nose into hundreds of handwritten recipe books in the past year, sniffing out old gems and modern classics like a Tasmanian truffle pig. And best of all, I've begged permission to publish them in the unlikeliest of places: a cookbook edited by me, a news journalist, and ordained by our greatest food revolutionary, Margaret Fulton.
Australia's Favourite Recipes started out as a way for me to get my unimaginative hands on some good, honest everyday recipes for home. I was never short of a dinner party recipe, but what I needed were dishes I could cook on a weeknight with ingredients I could buy from the corner shop, dishes that took less than 30 minutes to make, and treats that one day my kids would come home for and be transported back to their childhoods. I wanted the dishes families have made and enjoyed week after week, often for generations, and never tired of.
We did a shout-out on the Today show, we asked for recipes on radio and called for submissions on Facebook. In the end we received several hundred and had to whittle them down to just over 70. They came in spidery handwriting by mail, in shouty capitals on Facebook, and with photos of grandpas, nonnas, hungry kids, and proud home cooks. And with a few notable exceptions (ham cooked in instant coffee, anyone? Schnitzel with banana-avocado sauce?) they were fresh, inspired and nourishing.
There were plenty of lovingly perfected lasagnes and lamingtons, but also some outstanding exotics. Steve Wide's jewelled freekeh salad mixes pomegranate and hearty lentils with mint, almonds and currants; it's an absolute delight. There were Italian dishes from nonna, and noodles from the Philippines. There were stories of lunch-box treats (chocolate Weet-Bix slice from Margaret of Mollymook) and of a boyfriend brought home to meet mum over a zesty lime and chocolate green pudding. I threw in a few of my all-time best fallbacks including vanilla slice, my lasagne (yes, I do think my version is the best - doesn't everyone think that about their own?), and a lemon yoghurt cake that's one of the quickest, most fuss-free cake recipes around.
Armed with this plunder, I went about the dream task of putting together a recipe book. The team and I set up camp in a cottage in country Victoria in the depths of winter. Detouring around flooded roads, well prepared with wellies and beanies, we began a cooking, photographing and eating marathon.
The process was quite a revelation for this novice food editor. By day two I found myself sounding like a real pro with proclamations such as, "We're going to have to swap that hero mussel for a hero prawn, and move that white pepper pot more to the right of frame" or, "Ahem, we need fresher herbs on the salmon - those baked herbs look like they'd set the sniffer dogs barking at a music festival."
By day five we were running out of patience, vintage tea towels, and holes with which to loosen our belts. But we'd put together a snapshot of 21st-century Australian home dining.
It's only fitting that a community-based true-blue charity should benefit from this treasure trove, so I approached Legacy with an offer of a large portion of the profits. Since World War I, Legacy's incredible volunteers have been helping the families of our deceased and incapacitated servicemen and women, and unfortunately their work has been needed by every successive generation.
The cover recipe - the icing on the cake, if you like - is a Margaret Fulton berry-meringue creation, a cross between a good old pavlova and a vacherin. It's as exciting as Fulton's forthright assertion that "this is a book to treasure and keep".
Goodness me, it will be a long time before I clamber down from cloud nine, and even then I'll still have a lifetime of reliable, delicious family recipes at my fingertips.