From as far back as I can remember, no summer has rung more true to the words of Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic poem, My Country, than the one that we have just endured. From the rugged, flame engulfed mountains, to the drought and ice-bullet infested flooding rains, this Australia Day gave our family cause to reflect on how lucky we truly were to only be defending our lungs against the smoke rather than our home or our livelihoods against the formidable natural elements.
As heat waves across the country relentlessly thrashed thirsty paddocks and homesteads with whip-like talons of fury, community spirit saturated the media channels and internet streams with heroic tales of firemen, allied health professionals, charity organisations and humble neighbours bestowing wilful and lavish volunteer hours and aid upon those gravely affected by the fires. Closer to home, and many of our townsfolk were offered all but a moments reprieve from the sunny monotony as the joyous news of incoming rain was quickly replaced with feelings of loss and frustration about expensive repair jobs and interminable waits for insurance claims: the drumming of an army being less of the steady soaking rains and more like cricket ball sized hail stones!
Through it all – the smoke, hail and encircling fires – our family sat in the extremely privileged position of being almost completely unaffected: Scott cycled to work the day the midday hail storm wiped out most of the cars in the office carpark; my gardens, both at home and at “The Farm” (our offsite allotment), received a generous dumping of rain (without the icey fusillade); and we all had sufficient lung capacities to challenge, albeit with gas masks, even the most menacing of smog counts.
On the morning of the 26th January, as I heedfully balanced my burgeoning basket of allotment picked produce on the handle bars of my bike whilst also herding my speedracing kidditroop home, I was suddenly struck with a Green n’ Gold epiphany. Inspired by the acts of the many thousands of opal-hearted volunteers who assisted in the fire and flood relief efforts, I brought my love of ordered woods and gardens to our series of long weekend guests by rounding out each meal with a selection of no-waste, giant cucumber infused indulgences.
To all who share my sentiment about our great countrymen and women, or for anyone keen for an adventurous take on the green and gold theme, then please feel free to take a walk down my green and rather shady lane. I present to you my recipes for…
My Country Cake (Cucumber and Lemon Cake) and Cool as a Cucumber Cordial
Who’d have thought that those flailing seedlings I picked up on the throw out table at our local nursery would prove to be so productive! In true Darwinian style I chose the strongest of the punnet to take prime position in my summer, cucurbitaceae family bed. The runts I planted about the edge as a means of keeping down the couch and protecting the soil from the blistering hot sun. Two months later and my family recipe book is brimming with new favourites that make good use of the glut of tough skinned monsters that have now run rampant about our patch. My Country Cake and Cool as a Cucumber Cordial are true Green n’ Gold winners for all-comers to enjoy on those scorching summer afternoons.
My Country Cake ingredients:
1 giant cucumber
zest and juice of 1 lemon
¾ c brown sugar
½ tsp vanilla
½ tsp cardamom
1 ¾ c plain flour
2 tsp baking powder
¼ – ½ c milk
125g butter, softened
1 ½ c icing sugar
1 tbs milk
½ tsp turmeric
½ c flaked coconut, finely diced
Cut the cucumber into quarters lengthwise. Carefully remove the seeds with a sharp knife by slicing out the gelatinous flesh. To save the seeds for next season, push the seeds out from the flesh and rinse the seeds under cold water. Strain in a colander then place the seeds in the center of some muslin cloth. Tie up the cloth with some kitchen twine. Label (I use old egg cartons) and hang till completely dry (in the height of the summer, this usually only takes a few days). Cut the rest of the cucumber into large chunks and puree together with the deseeded flesh. Strain through some muslin cloth for atleast 30 minutes. You should have close to 1 cup of green cucumber liquid which can be frozen and used to make Cool as a Cucumber cordial at a later date. The remaining pureed cucumber in the muslin cloth is used to make My Country Cake.
Cream together the butter and the sugar. Whisk in the eggs one at a time and then the vanilla. Stir through the pureed cucumber. In a separate bowl, mix together the flour, cardamom and baking powder. Stir one third of the flour mix through the butter mixture then one third of the milk. Repeat until all the flour and milk is used up and the batter is a thick and dollopable consistency. Pour the batter into a greased and baking paper lined 18-20cm cake tin. Bake at 170oC for 40-50 minutes. Cool to room temperature before icing.
To make the icing, whisk the butter until almost white in colour. Whisk in ½ cup of the sifted icing sugar and a dash of the milk. Repeat until all the milk and the icing sugar is used up. Whisk in the turmeric. Spread all over the cake to approximately 5 mm thick. Sprinkle over the coconut.
Cool as a Cucumber Cordial ingredients:
700ml cucumber juice (see method above)
a handful of mint, bergamot, lemon balm or lemon verbena
650 g sugar
Finely dice the herbs. Place the herbs, cucumber juice and sugar into a saucepan and slowly bring to the boil, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Simmer for 3 minutes then leave overnight to infuse.
To sterilise the cordial bottles and lids, wash the bottles and lids thoroughly in hot soapy water (use a bottlebrush if you need). Rinse in hot water then leave upside down to drain on a tea towel. Place the bottles and lids on a tray in an upright position then place them in the oven at 100oC for 15-20 minutes. Meanwhile, strain the cucumber liquid to remove the herbs. Reheat the liquid to simmering point then bottle into sterilised bottles and leave to cool. Refrigerate till cold. To serve, pour 1 tablespoon into the bottom of a glass. Top with 1 cup cold water (or carbonated water), ice and fresh mint.
Serve your cucumber delights to your patriotic guests with scoop of homemade ice-cream and a generous toast: “To those who know what brown country their homing thoughts do fly”. Enjoy!
Note: this article includes some extracts from Dorothea Mackellar’s iconic poem, My Country.