Monday, January 28, 2013

Happy Australia Day!

Every nation has their day.  The day where the flag is proudly waved, backyards and beaches are full of revelers, and the night is capped off with good cheer and fireworks.  Australia is no exception to this, and the national day of revelry is held on January 26th.  Happy Australia Day to all those down under!

Having lived down under for approximately 4 years, we returned to the Northern Hemisphere just about a year and a half ago.  Last year was our first Australia Day spent in America, and although the chilly weather of winter makes us long for hot January days, we had a wonderful celebratory dinner last year to commemorate our time there.  The people of Australia are truly remarkable and we have many fond memories of good friends and good times.

Down under, no Australia Day would be complete without time spent in the backyard "undercover" area with the barbie fired up and a few snags ready to cook, along with a tantalizing assortment of cutlets, steaks and seafood.  Unfortunately, we have yet to replace the barbecue we had in Australia with a grill here in the USA.  The combination of cold weather and lack of equipment drives our celebratory meal to an indoor affair.  Our food tradition is developing into a meal centered around an Aussie Meat Pie with Lamingtons for dessert.  More of a winter meal for the Aussies, which works well for our cold January days.

Meat pies are ubiquitous in Australia, and can be purchased as a large family size pie that serves about 4, a single serving pie that can be eaten out of hand if required, or as a mini "party pie" that is just a smidge too big to pop in the mouth whole.  There was nary a child's birthday party that didn't have a tantalizing tray of these tiny beauties to munch on, along with the companion sausage rolls.

The meat pies are a very simple pie composed of beef in a gravy that is baked in a pie crust.  They can be found with a variety of fillings, from steak to ground beef and are often accented with onions, pepper or garlic.  Traditionally the bottom crust is a traditional pastry dough - known as short crust pastry in Australia, and the top crust is a layer of flaky puff pastry.  I have to admit that during my tenure in Oz the store bought pies were so delicious that I rarely went to the trouble of baking them myself.

On to dessert... Lamingtons.  I have come to learn that this tasty tidbit was developed as a way to use up stale cake.  The Aussies love of fresh baked goods far surpasses the Yankee willingness to accept items with an unending shelf life, and a cake is considered stale after nary a day passes.  Of course the extremely low humidity that is ever present on  most of the continent does render most items dry after a day or so, even when properly stored.  The solution to this problem was to submerge slightly stale cubes of cake into a thin chocolate icing and then dip them into dessicated coconut.  The resulting snack type cake is delicious, but the key is to use stale cake when preparing them - it is very difficult for a freshly baked cake to survive the cutting and dipping process intact.

So, in celebration of our second Australia Day in our new home, we will be enjoying a taste of the continent that still holds a bit of our heart and likely always will.

A Yankee's Take on Aussie Meat Pie

This recipe is based on the Food Network recipe for Australian Meat Pie, and yields two 9-inch pies.
I used 2 non-stick tart pans with removable bottoms to make the cutting and serving process easier.

2 teaspoons olive oil, or enough to coat bottom of frying pan
1 onion, diced
3 pounds ground beef (90% lean or higher, as liquid will not be drained from the beef)
2 packages dry brown gravy mix
3 cups water
1/4 cup flour
2 teaspoons Vegemite, Marmite, or similar yeast extract spread
1 teaspoon Worcestershire Sauce
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
2 - 9 inch pie crusts for bottom of pie
2 sheets of puff pastry for top of pie
1 egg white, slightly beaten

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Farenheit.

Saute onion in olive oil in large frying pan until soft and slightly transparent.  Add ground beef and saute until beef is cooked through.  Note - pan must be large enough to accommodate the ground beef and gravy.

While beef is cooking, prepare dry brown gravy mix according to package directions.  Add Yeast Extract, Worcestershire Sauce and garlic once it begins to simmer.

Place pie crust in bottom of pie pan, folding edges even with top.

Once beef is cooked through, sprinkle 1/4 cup of flour over beef without draining the liquid.  Stir flour in completely.

When gravy is prepared, pour into beef and flour mixture and stir thoroughly.

Spoon Beef and Gravy mixture into prepared pie crust.

Place puff pastry on top of pie and trim edges as needed.  The top can be sealed to the bottom using a bit of the egg wash if desired.

Brush egg white over top of puff pastry and place pie in oven for 50 to 60  minutes, until top of pie is a golden brown.

Serve with tomato sauce, also known as ketchup, or catsup, to Yankees - and yes, anyone from America is a Yankee to an Australia regardless of where you live in relation to the Mason-Dixon line.


Lamingtons are super simple, although a bit messy, to prepare and can be made using a variety of cakes and frostings.  The main requirement is that the cake be slightly stale, the frosting be slightly runny, and the coconut be very dry.  I found the dessicated coconut in the Indian section of my local Wegman's, but it was labeled coconut powder - macaroon.  It was exactly the texture and consistency of the coconut used in Australia.

Last year I followed the Lamington recipe found at with great success.  I just had to make sure that I made the cake a day or so ahead of time and let it sit on the counter and dry out a bit.  It was too fragile when first baked to make it through the dipping in frosting process.

This year life got crazy busy leading up to Australia Day and I found myself in the grocery store buying Sara Lee Frozen pound cake the day I planned on preparing the dessert.  Much to my surprise the dipping process went just fine with the store bought cake, even though it didn't have time to dry out.

They turned out fantastic, and we couldn't stop at just one.  Maybe next year I'll have the time to slice the pieces in half and layer in some jam before dipping, which is another of the many variations possible.  It was also common to find gorgeous pink strawberry lamingtons or lemon yellow lamingtons in the shops.  But I don't think it can be a true lamington without the coconut...