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Blasts from the past in the Dandenongs

Yesterday I wrote no post - the one I posted was really from the day before - because I spent the afternoon up in the Dandenongs meeting with Wendy - an old friend whom I have not actually seen for years. She is down from Queensland visiting her daughter and catching up with old Melbourne friends and the Dandenongs were chosen as the venue because her daughter lives at the foot of the northern end. I think it's north. The Kalorama end anyway. We decided to drive to Olinda - a small tourist town a few kilometres from the summit - where we were bound to find somewhere to sit over a coffee and cake for a chat.

And so we did - the Olinda Café shown above left - but only after a rather sad trawl up and down the main street discovering that hardly anything was open. Okay it was a Friday, and not a particularly wonderful day, but I suspect that in times gone by there would have been many more to choose from. There were other cafés and they did not look permanently closed, just closed for the day. And there were very few customers in the Olinda Café as well. Is this COVID I wonder or just a seasonal/weekday thing? The advantage of course was that we had lots of space and lots of cakes to choose from, although in the end I settled for a relatively modest caramel slice and Wendy for some toast and jam. Very modest. So not a lot to write about on the food front.

However, there is more to write. During the course of our long and very happy conversation a potential blog subject came up - and apologies to Wendy who has become one of my loyal readers - I cannot now remember what it was. I knew at the time I should have written it down!

We exchanged the stories of our grown up children and grandchildren - hopefully I didn't go on too long about them - and during the course of the conversation Wendy mentioned that she clearly remembered a meal that she had eaten in our first home - a pancake stack layered with various fillings and covered in a sauce, which was then sliced into like a cake - followed by a slow-cooked lamb with vegetables underneath. The lamb, I think, was the Carbonnade Nïmoise that I wrote about not too long ago. But the pancake stack - yes that was indeed a blast from the past.

I remember making it a few times for dinner parties, because it was so impressive looking and it came from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The mention of this particular dish brought back so many memories of dinner parties, sometimes involving customers of David's - he was a computer salesman at the time - but mostly friends. And it's an Australian memory too because I don't think I ever made it in England, even though I had the book back then. I could be wrong, but I don't think so, because I think it's the sort of dish that I would have made when I wanted to impress - like for those customers. In fact that is how we met Wendy and her late husband John. John was one of David's customers. So yes Wendy I was trying to impress. But I haven't made it for years - as I no longer have anyone to impress.

And here is one of life's little coincidences. That ricotta. Well I have cancelled tonight's proposed family get together because David's cold is not travelling well and apart from him not feeling up to it, we also don't want to spread it around. And so I thought I would tick my vegetarian meal of the week box and perhaps make some stuffed spinach and ricotta pancakes for dinner. Crespolini or crespelli - rather like Jamie's Baked crepes with ricotta and broccolini. Second coincidence - I have broccolini too, one of the few green vegetables that are almost affordable these days. However, when Wendy mentioned that long ago stack of stuffed crepes I immediately thought I would have a go again - just for David and I.

So first of all I checked out the recipe - Gâteau de crêpes à la Florentine - a complicated looking two page recipe that involves making 24 crêpes, two different kinds of filling, and a mornay sauce with which to cover it, not to mention putting it all together. If you have time (around 20 minutes) and nothing else to do, have a watch of this video, by this youngish American guy (well he may be Canadian) who makes the recipe with all manner of mistakes along the way - the sorts of things we all do - which is very reassuring. However the result as you can see in the picture here is pretty good, and he loved it. I think that's probably a pretty honest opinion because he begins by referencing something similar that he made before, which he said was awful. It is long, and maybe you will be irritated by him, but I really had to smile every now and then. He has a whole series of videos which I think are all on recipes from the book. I might check them out every now and then.

However, I don't think I shall be making it tonight - far too complicated, especially if you follow it to the letter and do things like leave the crêpe batter to rest for two hours. One blogger described it as 'a ton of work'. So you have been warned. Way back then, when I made it for Wendy I was a bit more dedicated I think. No, tonight I shall be making something like Jamie's dish - improvising with spinach and ricotta and mushrooms and maybe some of that broccolini as well. Perhaps with a mushroom sauce - I still have mushrooms - a very simple one - to match the Julia vibe.

I did have a look to see if modern times have meant that this dish has evolved and I did indeed find a few variations: Sylvia Colloca's Lasagne Teramene, which is from her home region of Abruzzo, which is really a meat based lasagne but with crêpes instead of pasta; The Australian Women's Weekly's Ricotta and basil pancakes with tomato and rocket salad which is really completely different in that the ricotta is actually in the pancakes which are then stacked and topped with a salad; Creamy Feta & Leek Stacked Crepes With Roasted Red Pepper Sauce from a blog called Cooking for Keeps - same concept, different ingredients, and just dobbed with sauce, rather than cooked with it; Gâteau de crêpes Florentine from Café Cat, which I think may be a slight adaptation of Julia's recipe but with no acknowledgement of that; Mediterranean crêpe stack from South Africa's Taste; and a rather lovely looking (but gluten free) Spinach and ham savoury crêpe cake from Cooks with Cocktails.

It's actually one of those brilliant dishes that you can play around with to your heart's content once you have the concept worked out. And I will try it again some time soon. But not tonight. No time and no energy.

So thank you Wendy for the brilliant afternoon and those blasts from the past. We were talking so long that the cafés warming fire had just about died out, the manager was sort of shutting up shop, dusk was falling and the rush hour traffic was piling up. But home in time, to tick off a fish dish for the week by making a smoked trout and beetroot quiche. Which is always appreciated.

And thanks to that American Jamie for showing everyone that even if you do things wrong it will all turn out alright in the end. A philosophy that Julia Child herself would be completely behind. She called this dish 'amusing'.

"Always remember: If you're alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who's going to know?" Julia Child


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