Helen Vlahakis knows sometimes if you allow a lifelong interest to simmer, it will organically come to the boil.
Helen, a solicitor and a mother of four, grew up cooking in her Greek grandmother’s kitchen. And when she and husband George, a lawyer, bought a 44 hectare property at Canyonleigh 10 years ago, she felt her childhood culinary roots stir.
“Being of Greek background, I grew up in a family which was really into cooking and had backyard veggie gardens,’’ says Helen from her kitchen in the couple’s home in Kangaloon, from where she runs her Mumma’s Country Kitchen cooking workshops.
“Both my mum and dad are from the Peloponnese and they were part of that Greek story of coming out to Australia with basically nothing and working two or three jobs while the grandparents babysat us.”
It was Helen’s maternal grandmother, Eleni who introduced her to the joys of cooking.
“My grandma used to babysit myself and my brother and our cousins and she would always plonk us on the bench if we would sit still long enough and she’d keep us there with her while she was cooking,’’ Helen says. “Whether she was chopping tomatoes or whatever … and she was a really good cook.”
Two years ago, Helen and George sold their Canyonleigh weekender and bought a 1908 farmhouse on 100 acres in Kangaloon.
“When we were living between Canyonleigh and Sydney, I had started my Mumma’s Country Kitchen blog,” says Helen.
“We planted a big veggie patch at Canyonleigh and we had an orchard at the farm and often during the week I would drop the kids off at school in the morning, drive down and tend to all the fruit and vegies.
“We had peaches, plums, pears, citrus and all sorts of veggies and I would come back to Sydney with 10 kilos of cucumbers and all the school mums would ask ‘what are you going to do with those?’.
“So I started blogging about how to use and cook with all these different ingredients, and then I held a few weekend cooking retreats and it sort of grew from there.”
Still practising then as a lawyer, Helen was also blogging for her husband’s legal firm but found the demands of parenthood and the law did not gel.
“It came time to focus on the kids and let go of being a solicitor, because I couldn’t do my job properly and be a mum, too,’’ says Helen. “Answering calls to clients, you can’t say, ‘sorry, I’m at a swimming lesson … you spend your million dollars on that house and I’ll get back to you’.”
The family made the decision to move permanently to the Highlands two years ago and Helen’s love of cooking shifted front and centre.
They keep chickens, goats, a few sheep and a black angus. A vegetable garden and an orchard supply much of the produce that appears in Helen’s day-long cooking workshops, which also include a farm tour, morning tea, a hands-on cooking workshop and then a lunch to enjoy the morning’s spoils.
Workshops in the run-up to Christmas include Edible Gifts For Christmas and A Christmas Farm to Table Menu. Workshops are limited to a maximum six people.
“I really like people who come on my workshops to get their hands dirty with each of the dishes we learn how to make,” says Helen.
“That’s how my grandmother taught me and that’s how I like to pass along her knowledge and love of cooking.”
These aromatic little cakes are a traditional Greek Christmas sweet. They are traditionally egg shaped but I love to use our Christmas cookie-cutters to give them a more festive feel. This recipe makes 30 to 35 biscuits.
- 1 cup vegetable oil
- ½ cup white caster sugar
- 1 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- ½ tsp ground cloves
- 4½ to 5 cups plain (all-purpose) flour
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp baking soda
- ½ cup finely chopped walnuts
- 1 additional cup finely chopped walnuts
- 1 tsp cinnamon sugar
- 1¼ cups honey
- ½ cup water
- 3 whole cloves
- Preheat oven to 160C (fan-forced). Grease and line two or three large oven trays and put to the side.
- Beat the oil and sugar on a medium speed in a stand mixer until the mixture starts going white. Will take about four minutes.
- Add the juice, cinnamon and cloves to the mixture and beat well.
- In the meantime, sift 4½ cups of flour and the baking powder and baking soda into a large bowl and mix in the ½ cup walnuts. Slowly add to the oil mixture and beat on the lowest speed just until the flour has been incorporated. Turn the machine off and test the dough with your fingers. If it sticks to your hands, add the extra ½ cup flour and test again. If it still sticks to your hands or can’t be rolled into a ball, add 1 tablespoon of flour at a time until it is the desired consistency. If you decide it is too tight, add a little more juice.
- Pat the dough into a square about 30cm x 30cm and 1.5cm thick. Use different Christmas cookie-cutters to cut the dough into shapes.
- Using a fork, lightly press down on each cookie to leave indents on the top. Re-roll and keep cutting shapes until you have used all the dough.
- Pop the trays into the oven and bake for about 30 minutes. Allow them to cool completely on the trays.
- Once the cookies have completely cooled, mix the extra walnuts and cinnamon sugar in a bowl and set aside.
- In a small saucepan, heat the honey, cloves and water until the texture is runny and it begins to simmer. Lower the heat to the lowest possible simmer point and place two to three cookies at a time into the saucepan, turning each biscuit a couple of times so begin to soak up the honey.
- Place them on a tray lined with baking paper and sprinkle with the walnut/cinnamon sugar mixture.
- Repeat for all cookies and enjoy!
Blueberry Pavlova Wreath
- 4 egg whites, at room temperature
- 1 cup white caster sugar
- 2 teaspoons cornflour, sifted
- 1 tsp white vinegar
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
Vanilla whipped cream
- 2 cups thickened cream, cold
- 3 tbsp icing sugar, sifted
- 1 tsp vanilla bean paste
- 3 x 125g punnets fresh blueberries
- 3 tbsp water
- 2 tbsp honey
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 star anise
- 3 tsp lemon juice
Baby mint leaves to garnish
- To make the meringue, outline a 20cm circle on a large piece of baking paper and then a 13cm diameter circle within the larger circle. This will give you an outline of the wreath you will create. Turn the paper upside down on a baking tray and set aside. Double check your stand mixer bowl and whisk attachment are absolutely clean, dry and free from any traces of grease.
- Set the oven rack in the middle and preheat the oven to 120C (fan-forced).
- To make the meringue, place the egg whites in the bowl of your stand mixer and whisk until firm peaks. Add the cup of caster sugar, one teaspoon at a time, whisking well between each addition, until the mixture is thick and glossy.
- Add the corn flour, vinegar and vanilla paste and whisk until combined. Place large dollops of meringue within the circle markings on the baking paper to make the wreath, making sure the dollops just touch each other. Use a spatula to smooth down the surface a little.
- Place the meringue in the oven for 75 to 90 minutes or until it is lovely and dry and you are able to easily lift it off the paper without it sticking. Turn off the oven and leave the oven door ajar (I like to place a wooden spoon in the door to make sure it doesn’t open too much) for at least three hours or until the meringue is completely cold.
- In the meantime, make the compote by placing all the ingredients, except one punnet of blueberries, in a small saucepan and bring to a medium heat. Once it starts bubbling, reduce the heat and cook for about five minutes, stirring occasionally to mash the fruit.
- Add the remaining punnet of blueberries and allow to cook for a further seven to eight minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture has slightly thickened. Remove from the heat and completely cool.
- Just before serving, make the vanilla whipped cream by combining the chilled cream, icing sugar and vanilla paste in the bowl of your stand mixer. Whisk on medium speed until soft peaks form and it holds its shape. Be careful at this stage, as the cream can go from ready to overbeaten in seconds.
- To assemble the cake, place the pavlova wreath on its serving plate. Place the whipped cream on top of the wreath and top with dollops of the compote. Garnish with a few baby mint leaves if you like. Slice and serve immediately.