Alex Johnston: Share a plate of delicious treats (+recipe)

By Linda Hall

Every Kiwi cook, baker or chef - whatever you like to call yourself - should have a copy of Ladies, a Plate: The Collection by Alexa Johnston. The title immediately conjures up thoughts of family barbecues, neighbourhood parties and just about any gathering which involves food and drink.

The blokes arrive with liquid refreshments tucked under arm and the women come in plate-first offering their host their culinary delights.

With a foreword by Johnston's long-time friend, Ray McVinnie, and scattered with handy hints, practical skills and pictures from days gone by, this is much more than a cookbook.

Recipes include good old bacon-and-egg pie, neenish tarts, savoury eggs on lettuce, Boston bun, afghans, hokey pokey biscuits, Anzac biscuits, Highlander biscuits and perfect New Zealand shortbread. A welcome addition to any kitchen.

I asked her some questions:

How did you decide what recipes to include in this book?

First of all everything had to be delicious, but names like "gems", "whispers", "dream kisses" and "miracles" were an added attraction. New Zealand women were very inventive in giving their baking delightful names.

What is your first memory of food?

Probably my mother Paula's baking, which was kept in tins in a high cupboard well out of reach of unsupervised small hands.

Who was the major influence in your love of cooking?

My mother. She encouraged my early, often disastrous, attempts and her " special chocolate cake" recipe, which always turned out perfectly, made me feel like a master baker. It's in the book, of course.

Have you a guilty pleasure?

No guilt, just moderation especially with toast, butter and home-made jam or marmalade.

What ingredient could you not live without?


What is your favourite cooking gadget?

My KitchenAid cake mixer, but I learned to bake using my mother's Kenwood Chef.

If you go out to a restaurant what do you like to eat?

Anything Japanese.

In the cooking world who do you most admire?

Lois Daish, a brilliant New Zealand cook and writer.

If you're not cooking what do you like to do?

Read, knit, garden.

What's next for you?

Getting on with some home preserves as we come into the busy season: jams, jellies, pickles, chutneys, sauces and fruit syrups and liqueurs.



Paula's Shortbread:

8 oz butter 225g

4 oz icing sugar 115g

12 oz flour 340g

2 tbsp cornflour

Josette's Shortbread:

8 oz butter 225g

4 oz icing sugar 125g

4 oz flour 125g

4 oz custard powder 125g

4 oz cornflour 125 g

Myra's Shortbread:

1 lb butter 500g

8 oz caster sugar * 225g

1 lb flour 700g

8 oz cornflour 225g

1/2 tsp salt

* After measuring all the ingredients Myra removes two large tablespoons of sugar, to make the shortbread less sweet.

New Zealanders have developed a taste for shortbread made with icing sugar and cornflour, a combination that makes crisp, light shortbread with a very melting texture. I've included three versions here - all by women I know very well. My mother, Paula, made (almost) the classic version of perfect shortbread, with less cornflour; her friend Josette Lawrence included a little custard powder; and my friend Myra Lawrie substituted caster sugar for icing sugar when her husband Tom said that the shortbread was too smooth for his taste and suggested that she "try and rough it up a bit".

These excellent women regularly made their shortbread in quantity to give away at Christmas-time, all differently decorated and all very good indeed. Myra's recipe is for a double quantity, but it can be halved. Use ordinary salted butter for an authentic taste.


Preheat the oven to 300F/150C and line two baking trays with baking paper, or grease them lightly.

For each recipe, combine the butter and sifted dry ingredients in a food mixer or food processor and mix until well blended.

Tip the dough onto the bench and knead into a firm mass.


Paula's shortbread: Make the dough into a long roll and slice into discs about 7mm thick with a thin-bladed table knife.

Set them out on baking trays, leaving just a small space between the pieces. Prick each piece with a fork.

Josette's shortbread: Roll the dough into a rectangle on a lightly floured board, even up the edges and cut it into fingers using a wavy-edged potato cutter. Set the fingers out on trays, leaving a small space between them. (Josette called this recipe "Aunt Ella's Shortbread", after one of her mother's sisters. She baked it in a shallow tin and then cut it into wavy-edged pieces, but I haven't managed to master her method so this is my adaptation.)

Myra's shortbread: Make the dough into a long roll and slice into discs about in / 7mm thick with a thin-bladed knife. Set them out on the baking trays, leaving just a small space between the pieces. While holding each piece at the sides to steady it, press down twice with the tines of a fork, covering the whole surface with parallel indentations.


Cook the shortbread very slowly for about 30 minutes.

The tops should not change colour very much, but the bottoms will be a pale golden brown. Rotate halfway through and swap the trays top to bottom.

Remove to cooling racks and store in stacks in an airtight container when cold. Makes at least 36 slices. This shortbread freezes very well indeed. You can remove just as many pieces from the freezer as you need for morning tea and they will thaw by the time the kettle boils - or eat them frozen if you wish.

Reprinted with permission from Ladies, A Plate The Collection by Alexa Johnston. Published by Penguin NZ, RRP $65. Copyright text and photographs Alexa Johnston, 2008, 2009


Ladies, a Plate, The Collection

by Alexa Johnston. Published by Penguin NZ, $65

- Hamilton News

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