Monday 24 September 2007

The Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book and Facebook

*** STOP PRESS ***

On the facebook group I set up dedicated to the Birthday Cake Book, we're conducting a poll to determine which is the "best" cake in the original book. The poll is open until ANZAC Day 2008, so if you'd like to vote please join the facebook group (details below) and let us know your favourite! :)

When I was a kid my favourite book (apart from the Famous Five books and all the Usborne Puzzle Adventures) was the Australian Women's Weekly Children's Birthday Cake Book. I would spend hours reading it like it was a picture book, fantasising about which cake I should beg Mum to make me on my next birthday.

I had very firm opinions regarding the cakes featured in the book: the Candle cake was too boring, I loved the Bunny Rabbit and Robert Robot cakes, I didn't like the ice cream cakes, and was simultaneously repulsed yet fascinated by the concept of the Swimming Pool cake featuring plastic dolls with jube swimrings swimming in GREEN JELLY under the shade of a snazzy cocktail umbrella. With the notable exception of the Candy Castle (which Mum made me for my sixth birthday when we were living in London - those British kids had never seen anything like it!), I thought the cakes "For Boys" were much cooler than the cakes "For Girls" - who wants a freaking Sewing Machine or Maypole/Ballerina cake when you could have a Rocketship or a Tip Truck laden with lollies?!

In January this year I was talking with my friend C about childhood memories and I mentioned how I'd always wanted the Piano cake from the AWWCBCB. Wonderful wonderful friend that she is, she showed up at my (ahem) 27th birthday party a few weeks later carrying the cake you see on your right, complete with a handmade candelabra (which still sits proudly on my mantelpiece) and miniature bound sheet music to Rock Lobster.

It was the BEST present!! :)

So fast-forward to May this year when I jumped on the facebook bandwagon. Having joined a few food-related facebook groups such as the excellent "top melbourne restaurants" (lots of good recommendations!) and "I wish Yum Cha trolleys would circulate through my place of work", I created a group called "The Women's Weekly Birthday Cake Book is awesome" and invited C and a few of my friends to join it for a bit of a laugh, thinking the whole thing would fizzle out after a week or two.

But lo and behold, I hadn't realised that the book had struck a chord with so many people! Gradually, more and more people, almost all of whom I don't know, started joining the group... 50..... 150... 500... and today the group reached 1000 members! In honour of that milestone I thought I'd blog about the group here today.

Popular topics in the group have been Choo-Choo Train envy (the train, pictured on the cover, looks the most difficult to make of all the cakes, so is therefore the most coveted), the merits of the updated version of the book (featuring a Magic Toadstool cake on the cover) versus the original, and of course the love-hate relationship we all have with the Rubber Ducky cake (pictured left), with his bizarre popcorn afro, scary eyeliner and salty chip beak. What I really like about the group is that as well as sharing their birthday cake memories, people have been posting photos of their AWW-inspired cakes, both from their childhoods and from the present (including one member who posted a photo of two little boys posing with the train cake in the mid 80s, then posted a present-day photo which recreated the original, featuring the same two boys (now grown) and a new train cake!). The group has over 75 photos that have been sent in!

I thought it best not to post other members' photos here on my blog without permission, so these are photos of cakes my brother and I were lucky enough to have made for us by Mum in the 1980s (and yes, Buster loved the Cricket Pitch cake he had for his sixth birthday SO MUCH that he had it again for his eighth birthday). But if you're on facebook, drop by the group and check out the other photos, they're very cute!

P.S. Next time I'll write about the other group I created ("I ate at David and Camy's Shanghai Dumpling and survived (but only just)") and I'll combine it with an actual review... :-)

Monday 17 September 2007

D.O.C. : Melbourne now has a mozzarella bar!

D.O.C. Pizza and Mozzarella Bar
295 Drummond Street, Carlton (map)
9347 2998

DOC: welcome back to simple Italian food!

On Friday night I was very excited about visiting D.O.C., the restaurant which recently opened at the old Vue de Monde site on the corner of Drummond and Faraday in Carlton. I was excited:

(a) because D.O.C. is the new venture by the charming Italian Stallions who run Carlton Espresso, one of the very (very) few places on Lygon Street that serves decent food and my favourite cafe in Melbourne for pizza al taglio and piadine; but also
(b) because D.O.C. is a pizza AND mozzarella bar!

What can I say, I'm a sucker for a niche gimmick (and for good mozzarella). The NY Times reckons the world's first mozzarella bar started up in Rome a few years ago. Well, now it's Melbourne's turn, and on Friday night I went to check it out with four friends. I was not disappointed!

Il Duce Si DiventaItalian Stallion at Il Duce Si Diventa

First up, we went for a drink across the road at Il Duce Si Diventa. Having just been paid that day, I was looking forward to spending a tidy sum on a delicious red, quite probably a pinot noir - so was less than impressed to find that the red wine list at IDSD consisted of a Penfolds Cabernet... and a Penfolds Merlot. Bah! I had a beer instead.

Purely coincidentally, I discovered that Friday was the one year anniversary since IDSD opened. The bar caused a minor furore amongst the Italian community in Melbourne when it opened due to its name ("Il Duce" was Mussolini's de facto title, and the name of the bar (very) loosly translates as "(You're not born Il Duce), you become Il Duce"). SBS Italian radio interviewed the bar owner at the time and questioned him about the bar's name, asking him whether he would think it appropriate for a German to open a bar called Hitler Si Diventa. "Look... Hitler is Hitler, and Mussolini is Mussolini" was the reply from the bar owner, who was quick to point out that he wasn't a Fascist sympathiser.

Bizzarro interior at Il Duce Si DiventaVisual overstimulation at Il Duce Si Diventa

The interior decorating scheme of IDSD (described with generous understatement as "decadente" by SBS Italian radio) consists of getting enough kitsch, gilded, gaudy, over the top miscellanea to fill six houses, then cramming it all into one small bar (with strangely uninspiring results - as my friend M said, never has so little been made of so much). I DO like kitsch in most instances, but after a visit there my eyes felt like they'd been raped. It's not really my kind of place.

After one drink, we crossed the road and entered D.O.C. (no bookings, sorry).

DOC (at the old Vue de Monde site)DOC interior

D.O.C. stands for Denominazione d'Origine Controllata, the Italian appellation given to wines (and foods) from controlled regions. There are many DOC wines on the wine list, and plenty of D.O.P. foods (Denominazione d'Origine Protetta) including mozzarella, San Daniele prosciutto and gorgonzola.

DOC: provenances of delicious Italian foods!

The paper placemats have the menu printed on one side and this cute map of Italy on the other, which points out which parts of Italy the different foods on the menu come from (eg piave cheese from the Veneto, vincotto from Puglia). You can't see it in the photo above, but the map has a huge arrow pointed to the right marked "GREECE THAT WAY" :-)

D.O.P. Air Freighted Italian Buffalo Mozzarella with White Sardinian Olives and Shaved Fennel

Of course we HAD to start with something from the mozzarella bar section of the menu. You get your choice of a big juicy ball of either Australian Fior di Latte or D.O.P. Air Freighted Italian Buffalo Mozzarella accompanied by a little something on the side such as spek, bresaola, D.O.P. San Daniele Prosciutto, tomato with pesto etc. We chose the Italian mozzarella (natch) accompanied by White Sardinian Anchovies, which were brilliantly matched with shaved fennel and whisper-thin slices of blood orange, and some grissini (excuse the shaky photo!).

Insalatone with rocket, pear, warm honey and Sardinian pecorino

We had a big salad (insalatone) of rocket, pear, warm honey and Sardinian pecorino. Also fantastic - having the honey slightly runny was the crowning touch.

Pizza Cicoria with chicory, piave and lemon

We shared three pizze amongst us - the first one I'd had and loved before in by-the-slice format at Carlton Espresso: the Pizza Cicoria with chicory, piave cheese and lemon. There are very few pizze that use lemon successfully - this is one of them!

Pizza San Daniele with San Marzano tomato, D.O.P. Buffalo Mozzarella and D.O.P. San Daniele Prosciutto

The Pizza San Daniele, with San Marzano tomato, D.O.P. Buffalo Mozzarella and D.O.P. San Daniele Prosciutto, was super-fresh and delicious. But I think my favourite was the third one...

Pizza Abruzzese with porchetta, mozzarella, torre di radicchio and mostarda di frutta

...the Pizza Abruzzese with porchetta, mozzarella, torre di radicchio and mostarda di frutta (an Italian fruit relish often flavoured with mustard). The saltiness of the porchetta offset the spicy bitterness of the radicchio wonderfully.

Sweet Goats Cheese Tiramisu with Pavesini

Having washed out savoury food down with a Dolcetto d'Alba (from Piemonte), we turned to the dessert menu. My curiosity was piqued by the Sweet Goats Cheese Tiramisu with Pavesini - I couldn't remember ever having goats cheese in a dessert before! We approached the dish with some trepidation, but I'm really glad we ordered it. Although it was very rich, it wasn't heavy. If you took a bit with lots of coffee in it, the nuance of goat was lost, but if you scooped up a coffee-free spoonful, the custardy flavour would yield a slightly goaty aftertaste. Unusual but nice!

Can't wait to go back there again. Let me know what you think of it if you go!

Wednesday 5 September 2007

Pho at Mekong

Pho Bo Gai Mekong
241 Swanston Street, Melbourne (map)
9663 3288

Praise the Lord for pho! It's filling and makes your tastebuds tango, yet tastes clean and refreshing. It's brilliant at getting rid of a hangover or a cold. Plus it's generally pretty healthy and CHEAP like the budgie! What other dish can compete??

When I went to Hanoi last year I had tons of the stuff. Here in Melbourne (itself home to some damn fine pho, according to this Hanoi food blogger), when the pho craving hits in the CBD, I tend to go to good ol' Mekong on Swanston.

Pho at Mekong

The yellow sign in the modest shopfront window reads "President Clinton had 2 bowls. How many can you have...". Far too many tables are crammed into the shabby interior and the staff tend to give you fairly short shrift, but that doesn't deter the punters. At these prices ($7 for a bowl that will easily leave you patting your tummy with contentment) and with pho so tasty, it's no wonder.

Does anyone know whether Bill actually ate at this particular venue?!

Sauces on pho at Mekong

Yes, I rather like to slather my pho bo (beef pho) with sauces before the tearing of the Vietnamese mint and the sprinkling of bean shoots.

Closeup of pho at Mekong


By the way, for those in the vicinity of Swan Street Richmond, I'd like to plug the Vietnamese restaurant Love Pho that just opened on Saturday a few doors down from Flavours of Lakhoum. I wandered in there on Saturday afternoon to pick up the take away menu, and the staff were extremely sweet and friendly and nervous about their opening day. The site once housed a very good suburban Indian restaurant called Swami that closed, so I'm hoping that locals will give this place a chance instead of automatically heading up to Victoria Street. I'll review their pho soon!