Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Australia Day

January 26 is "Australia Day".

It's a unique national holiday - a day set aside to celebrate this country, its history, and everything that is great about being Australian. It is celebrated with citizenship ceremonies, flag raising ceremonies, barbecues and fireworks.

One of my favorite Australia Day celebrations is the naming of "The Australian of the Year" - a person who is seen as a good role model and has contributed to the country in some significant way. Any Australian can nominate someone for the award, providing the nominee meets the criteria established by National Australia Day Council (NADC). It is this council which selects the recipients. Past recipients have been doctors, businessmen, sports personalities, and artists. Just being nominated is a great honour, and the award winners truly are remarkable human beings. I enjoy watching the award being presented - it's always an inspiring moment.

January 26 is the date that the first fleet of convict ships arrived at what would become Sydney in 1788. For this reason, the date chosen for the holiday is somewhat controversial, as Aboriginals and Torres Straight Islanders (who suffered greatly at the hands of Europeans) view the anniversary very much as Native Americans view the arrival of Columbus: an event to mourn, not celebrate. For them, the date is referred to as "Survival Day" and sometimes "Invasion Day". Aware of the issues, The NADC has a formal "reconciliation plan" developed to ensure that Australia Day is respectful of these communities and inclusive.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Meet "Red"

With brown/grey feathers, the Red Wattlebirds that live in the trees around our home blend in with the bark and foliage. If they weren't so active, you'd not see them.

Here's a photo of "Red" - a wattlebird who has a nest on our property:

I first became aware of these birds when the red-flowering callistemon bush next to the house was in bloom. Also called "bottle brush" plants, the flowers are shaped just like the brush they are named after. The Red Wattlebirds adore them, and when the flowers bloom, they bounce all over the bush, enjoying the nectar. The top of the bush is right next to the window in my laundry room - and every spring, when Red and his mate are breeding, he gets very upset with the "bird" he sees reflected in the window - and attacks it.

Sitting in my office, I'll hear the familiar clatter of Red as he buzzes against the window, and then the clack-clack as he hangs on the side of the windowsill and pecks at his reflection. Fortunately, he doesn't hit that window hard, so he's never been injured. Still, sometimes he goes at this pointless dogfight so long that I worry he'll exhaust himself - and on those occasions, I go and shoo him away, hoping he'll rest a bit.

Below is a closeup - you can see small red bit under his cheek - that's the "wattle" he's named for. He's a medium-sized bird - smaller than a magpie (about 12" from beak to tail) and seems thinner, more trim than a magpie.

My favorite bird-identification source says that Red Wattlebirds feed on nectar and some insects - but when I'm wondering about that. You see, our magpies, who normally ignore all the other birds, are quick to take offense at Red, and always attack him and his kind. The only other birds the magpies attack are the currawongs (which makes sense, since currawongs compete for many of the same foods - and are known to raid the nests of other birds).

Why would the magpies drive off a nectar-eater?

The other thing that makes me wonder is the fact that Red eagerly grabs bits of bread and gobbles it up. For some reason, this year he's hanging around our deck more than ever before. He's clearly looking for a handout.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Angel Food Cake - Part I

I recently shared a story with some friends here about my misadventures as a teenager trying to bake an angel food cake from "scratch". I could tell by the looks on their faces, and by the comments afterward that at least some of them had never heard of angel food cake. I was surprised by this, but after thinking about it for a while, realized I'd never seen it for sale in the grocery store, and I've not seen "cake flour" in the store, either. Was this one of those situations where the thing in question is known by some other name?

As it turns out: probably not.

I did a little "web research" and found that angel food cake is, apparently, an American invention. There's some disagreement on whether it was first made by the Pennsylvania Dutch, or by slaves in the deep south - but it's invention in the US does not seem to be disputed.

Surprisingly, cake flour - a main ingredient for angel food cake - isn't readily available here. You can get it, but it's not sold in the average grocery store. I say that is "surprising", because I've always thought proper cake flour was essential for good cakes - and, believe me, there are some gals here who can turn out spectacular cake! A quick search on the internet turned up quite a few message boards discussing "cake flour" and offering substitution recipes (such as 2 tablespoons of cornstarch sifted with 3/4 cup of general purpose flour). After reading up on what cake flour actually is, I'm not sure that the results would be the same with a substitution recipe - at least not where angel food cake is concerned.

There's an American foods store in Melbourne which is currently advertising (on their website) that they have cake flour in stock, so I have at least one source for it. I suspect that it's can also be found at specialty shops (and a friend told me last year about a shop not too far from where I live that sells lots of baking supplies - so they may offer it).

The more I think about it, the more intrigued I become.

I've located and bought an angel food cake pan on eBay. I'll see if the shop my friend told me about has cake flour or (if not) may just order it from the American food store. And then I'll take a stab at making 2 cakes: one with proper cake flour and one using a substitute recipe. My Aussie friends have introduced me to loads of Australian culinary inventions such as Lamingtons (oooOOooo!) and Pavlova (Ahhhhhh!), so it only seems fair to reciprocate.

Will my friends like angel food cake? Or will I find that it's something of an acquired taste?

And... when they see and taste it, will they say "Oh, yeah! We know what this is, and it's called (fill in Aussie word here)!"

I'll let you know.

  • What I’m listening to: "The Good Life" by One Republic
  • What’s for tea: Oh, hell... Let 'em eat CAKE! ;-)
  • What I’m reading: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • Wine recommendation: what wine to serve with angel food cake? Hm.....
  • What's the season?: summer in Oz, winter in the U.S.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

King Parrots Swinging

There are floor-to-ceiling windows on the north side of our house on both the first and second floors. The windows give a fabulous view of the trees, but in summer the sun streaming in turns the inside of our home into a sauna. Three years ago, we installed outdoor matchstick blinds along the balcony and first floor deck - and we let them down on hot days. The blinds do a fantastic job of keeping the sun off the windows and decking. They also provide amusement for the wild birds.

Here's the first-floor deck with the blinds down. Remarkably, the wild birds love flying through this "cool tunnel". You'd think they'd avoid it, but they don't.

Y'day I was out on the deck for quite a while, assembling a new BBQ. Stephen came out to help me and while we were working, the birds were assembled to see what we were up to (and, of course, to see if we had any food). The King Parrots in particular were having a ball. They were zooming through the space and at one point smacked us both in the back of the head with their wings when we suddenly stood up.

They are also intrigued with the blinds when they are rolled up. The Rainbow Lorikeets and King Parrots love to climb up and down the cords.

The two birds in the photo above and the one below are quite young (their beaks are dark, which indicates they are youngsters). The one on the right called to me from my office window, clearly wanting me to come outside. I stepped out onto the balcony to find her friend (the bird on the left) hanging on the white rope suspending the planter. The bird had the planter spinning and was having a ball.

I ran inside to get my camera. When I returned, they both flew up to the blinds cord and the bird on the left put on quite a show of swinging on the horizontal cord, flipping upside down, hanging from one foot and so on.

Unfortunately, right after the above photo was taken, the bird on the right leaned down and started gnawing on the cord in earnest. Not wanting the cord severed, I had to shoo these two off. I may have to devise some deterrent to save the blinds (not to mention the plant in the hanging basket, whose leaves show signs of having been "trimmed" sometime today).

  • What I’m listening to: "The Thrill is Gone" by BB King
  • What’s for tea: Chicken Paprikash (baked potato topped with a mild chicken curry and sautee'd mushrooms)
  • What I’m reading: Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • Wine recommendation: a rose - nicely chilled
  • What's the season?: summer in Oz, winter in the U.S.