A baking lesson with Tui Flower (+recipes)

By Grant Allen

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Grant Allen learns to bake scones in the kitchen of the great Tui Flower.

The legend, Tui Flower's, creations (clockwise from top left): Simple brownies; raisin loaf; scrunch and bran biscuits. Photo / Jason Burgess
The legend, Tui Flower's, creations (clockwise from top left): Simple brownies; raisin loaf; scrunch and bran biscuits. Photo / Jason Burgess

It was not without butterflies that I entered the world of Tui Flower. One of New Zealand's first food writers, Tui was the food editor of the New Zealand's Woman's Weekly from 1965-1984, and has a reputation for being somewhat formidable.

My friend, photographer Jason Burgess, had arranged a meeting to ask her if she would agree to help with a column on baking.

The handsome wrought iron gates at the entrance to Tui's Auckland home open to an old world garden. The double brick villa originally belonged to her grandparents. It feels solid, dependable and unshaken by external circumstances, much I suspect, like the three generations who have inhabited it.

Tui welcomed us with coffee and her own bran biscuits, all properly served on a small table set with one of her embroidered teacloths. After checking we were "up to scratch" we talked about what form this story might take.

Tui felt that it was important to offer simple baking recipes, with the criteria that they were economical, didn't need special kitchen equipment and taught basic skills for a new cook. Tui believes that everyone should be taught the basics and that many of these skills have been lost.

As a self-confessed terrible baker, I agreed instantly. My ulterior motive was to gain a lesson from the woman who had mentored my mother's generation through her weekly columns.

I commissioned her to teach me how to make scones.

"You won't be leaving the kitchen until you get it right!" was her response.

Tui learned to cook by watching her grandmother and mother but suspects that these days this kind of teaching doesn't happen.

She noted the "hard labour" of running a house in previous times - boiling coppers for washing, lighting solid fuel stove fires - there were no time-saving appliances such as dishwashers, blenders or microwaves in her day.

Routine was the order of the day and baking to fill the tins was a necessity to provide school lunches and to offer hospitality to visitors.

Tui is as sharp as a tack, and straightforward in her manner. The deep tone of her voice adds to her authority, and her training as a school teacher is evident. She delights in her reputation of "being a dragon".

Describing her career path, Tui says she was a pioneering woman in male-dominated work environments. French kitchens, corporate culture in her work with Unilever, and journalism.

She did not automatically receive acceptance, but she carved out a position and gained respect by hard work, integrity and, I bet, a fair degree of personal toughness. She explained that she developed a "dragon persona" as a self-protective device.

The date for my scone lesson arrived, and the butterflies returned as I put on my apron and Tui led me into her kitchen. It is wonderful room full of collected kitchenelia. There are Tui-height benches (she is not a tall person) and cabinetry her grandfather built. There is a place for everything and everything is in its place. It feels ordered and warm.

Between much laughter and good-natured banter I managed to make a batch of scones under Tui's eagle eye. I learned how to measure properly. I got told to put the lids back on ingredient tins after I had used them. I was tested on my knowledge of her vintage wooden kitchen implements. I got 9 out of 10, as I couldn't identify the rozelle, a Breton pancake scraper.

Burgess and I came away with bags of beautiful baking and were glowing like two school boys who'd just won a prize.

Thank you Tui, for your willingness to welcome us, share your knowledge and experience, and for the handwritten recipes you provided. These will be tucked inside my copy of your cookbook as a reminder of the most enjoyable time I spent with the doyenne of New Zealand cooking. I think you are more of a Flower than a Dragon, but that's between you and me.

Plain scones

Makes 10-12

2 cups plain flour
4 tsp baking powder
Pinch salt
1 tbsp sugar
30-50g butter
About ¾ cup of milk

1 Preheat oven to 200C-210C. Position oven rack in top third of oven.

2 Prepare oven tray by either lightly greasing or dusting with flour.

3 Sift flour, baking powder and salt into a bowl and stir in sugar.

4 Put butter in a measuring cup and melt in microwave.

5 Add milk to make up to the 1 cup measure.

6 Tip into dry ingredients and quickly stir to combine to get a soft, slightly tacky dough. It may be necessary to add a little more milk.

7 Turn onto a lightly floured surface and draw together to form an even block.

8 Pat out to about 2-2 ½ cm thick piece.

9 Flour the knife and cut into even-sized scones.

10 Place close together on prepared tray.

11 Bake about 12 minutes until risen and golden.

12 Remove from tray onto a wire rack or into a cloth.

Other Tui recipes found on this site include:

* Simple brownies

* Bran biscuits

* Raisin loaf

* Scrunch

- Herald on Sunday

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