Tis the season for citrus fruit in California. Everywhere I look on my travels, I see orange, lemon, lime and grapefruit trees bursting with ripening fruit. I don’t have any fruit trees on my property, but my former neighbour does. She has a Meyer lemon tree that is exploding with fruit. She asked me if I would take some since she can’t possible use all the fruit her tree bears. How could I say no? Now I have a large bowl of lemons to use.
My first order of business was to make a batch of lemon bars for a holiday party. I particularly like lemon bars because of the fresh, acidic citrus flavour, combined with the shortbread base. I don’t consider this recipe particularly difficult. It’s only the juicing and the zesting that take a bit of time.
I tried to do a bit of digging on the history of the lemon bar or square. There is a general consensus that lemon curd was created during the Renaissance and that shortbread followed thereafter. But the combination of shortbread with a layer of lemon curd baked on top did not surface until the early 1960’s when a recipe for the bars appeared in a Chicago newspaper. From the day on, lemon bars grew in popularity.
Nowadays you can find them in bakeries, patisseries and served during holidays and special occasions. If you like lemon desserts as much as I do, these will become a staple in your repertoire of desserts.
In keeping with the holiday spirit, I am baking sweets traditionally associated with this time of the year. Shortbread is an iconic biscuit (as they say in the UK for cookie) commonly associated with Christmastime.
The cookie was “invented” in Scotland all the way back in the 12th century. It was often twice baked until it hardened into a rusk, then dusted with sugar and spices. But the biscuit became more popular during the reign of Mary Queen of Scots during the 16th century, when it was often baked for family celebrations and holidays like Christmas.
The term shortbread comes from the fat or shortening used in the recipe–in this instance butter (and lots of it!) and the short crumb or crumbly consistency on the biscuit.
Most traditional recipes call for the dough to be pressed into the pan, pricked with fork tines and cut into wedges or rectangular biscuits after baking. I follow a recipe that is more like a drop cookie. And I like to change it up a bit and add some additional richness to the already rich dough.
Shortbread is a 1-2-3 cookie; one part sugar (this can be a combination of granulated sugar and icing sugar), two parts butter and three parts flour. My recipe also calls for cornstarch, which is supposed to soften the proteins in the flour. As such, the texture of my shortbread cookies is so crumbly, the cookie practically melts in your mouth.
Shortbread diehards would probably object to the use of cornstarch in the recipe, but I have had great success with this recipe so I’m not going to mess with it.
I like to add chocolate to my recipe so I take a Toblerone bar, which has delicious milk chocolate and nougat in it, and chop it up into small chunks before adding it into the dough.
I use a small 1/2 inch cookie scoop to form balls and bake them for approximately 15 minutes.
There should be NO browning on the cookie. If it browns, it’s been in the oven too long.
Shortbreads are subtly sweet and deeply rich. They are a perfect companion to a cup of tea or a hot toddy. And they most certainly make a great addition to your dessert table–or even a great gift at the holidays.
Shortbread Cookies with Toblerone Chunks
1 pound unsalted butter, softened
1 Cup Icing Sugar
3 Cups All Purpose Flour
1/2 Cup Cornstarch
1 Tsp Vanilla extract
1 Toblerone chocolate bar, chopped into small chunks
Beat the butter, icing sugar, flour and cornstarch until fluffy. add splash of vanilla and combine. Sprinkle chocolate chunks into batter and mix until just combined. Spoon onto a baking sheet and bake for 15 minutes at 350 degrees–make sure the cookies do not brown! The cookies will still be soft when you remove them from the oven. Place them on a rack to cook.
It’s holiday season and you know what that means: BAKING!!!
My oven is still misbehaving (don’t ask), but I have managed to whip up some cookies without too much difficulty, although a properly heated oven would mean more predictable bakes.
Nevertheless, my desire to bake has outweighed my patience for the oven to be repaired.
I dug through my recipe box and found this lovely recipe, brought to you by Bonnie Stern. It appeared in the Weekend Post back in 2006 and I’ve held on to it since then. My girlfriend, Katie, was the one who shared it with me. She was trying to find ways to get more iron into her son’s diet. This recipe calls for molasses, which is quite high in iron. It also calls for whole wheat flour or nutri flour, which is a blend of unbleached flour with the bran added back in, so it bakes like an all purpose flour. I didn’t have either of these so I just used all purpose flour, but that means these cookies aren’t quite as nutritious as the recipe says they could be. I’ll leave it up to you to decide.
You may be in a rush to make the dough and immediately bake the cookies, but the instructions call for chilling the dough for at least an hour. Don’t skip this step. It gives the melted butter the chance to solidify into the dough. It then becomes much easier to form the dough into balls so that when the cookies bake, they come out perfectly shaped with a nice crackle.
I roll the dough in turbinado sugar, which gives the cookies a nice finish.
Enjoy these with a glass of egg nog, milk or a hot toddy….they have a nice flavour of molasses, cinnamon and ginger, perfect for chilly winter nights!
Ginger Molasses Crackle Cookies
2/3 Cup of melted butter or vegetable oil (I use butter)
1 Cup granulated sugar
1/4 Cup molasses
2 Cups flour (preferably whole wheat or nutri blend)
2 Tsp ground ginger
1 Tsp cinnamon
1 Tsp baking powder
1 Tsp baking soda
1/4 Tsp salt
1/2 Cup of coarse sugar for dipping (eg. turbinado sugar)
In large bowl, combine butter with sugar. Beat in egg and molasses.
Mix or sift flour with remaining dry ingredients.
Refrigerate for at least 1 hour.
Shape dough into 1 Tbsp balls and roll in coarse sugar. Place on baking sheet lined with parchment paper and press down lightly. Leave enough space for other cookies.
Bake in a 350F preheated oven for approximately 10 minutes until crackle-looking but still soft in the centre. Let cool before transferring to a wire rack.
As previously mentioned, my brand-spanking new oven isn’t working. It hasn’t since we got it over a MONTH ago.
At first I thought maybe it was me. Maybe we had to become better acquainted with each other. After a few called to customer service, I was persuaded to try troubleshooting the problem before the company sent out a repair person. Well, after tinkering with the oven for a week and told the company it just wasn’t working.
The repairman who came turned out to be the most misogynistic piece of garbage I have ever met. I can’t recall a time in recent memory when a man was so overtly demeaning to me. I was so upset and called the company to complain. My oven was still broken, requiring a new part. I made it clear that repair man was not allowed anywhere near the premises. The new part was ordered and sent. A new repair company was retained and they have yet to show up to fix the oven. I am non-plussed. Actually, I am more than non-plussed. I am angry, disappointed, frustrated and I also feel helpless. I don’t like feeling like I am at the mercy of a company that took my money and delivered a substandard product and beyond crappy customer service.
To make myself feel better, I went on a road trip today with a friend of mine. We were on a mission. If I couldn’t bake in my own kitchen, I was going to live vicariously through the small country bake shops in farm country. We drove north to Sonoma County.
Our first stop was Mom’s Apple Pie in Sebastopol. It’s been around since 1984. In my head I was thinking, “oh! that’s not so long ago. I was just a kid then.” But then I remembered I’m getting old. That means the pie shop has been around for 35 years! THIRTY FIVE YEARS!!! We ordered ahead of time because it happens to be the week of Thanksgiving and we would have been sorely disappointed with the selection of pies if we had simply shown up. I got two kinds; strawberry rhubarb and apricot.
I did not get their namesake pie because I intend to bake an apple pie of my own. I also tried a mixed berry turnover while I was there, which was delicious. It was especially yummy because my stomach was growling after the two hour drive.
After leaving Mom’s we headed to Hale’s Orchard and picked up a bunch of blemished apples, which they refer to as “seconds.” I call them C-grade apples, which aren’t nice enough to sell in a grocery store, but certainly tasty enough and useful enough to turn into apple sauce or pies. So I bought 25 pounds. Normally I would get one variety, but since I don’t know anything about the varieties that are grown out here, I heeded the advice of the nice woman at the fruit stand and bought a variety. She said the best sauces and pies come from a mixture of apples.
From Hale’s we made a pit stop at Andy’s market, an independent grocery store that has wonderful produce, a great selection of meats and cheeses and lots of great bulk food.
But we saved the best for last! We went to Wild Flour Bakery in Freestone. The *main* street, if you could call it that, is a small unassuming road off the main highway that you would miss altogether if you blinked. There are a few shops clustered together, but that’s it.
We went just days before US Thanksgiving so it was busier than normal, according to my travel companion, Elizabeth, who frequents this bakery quite regularly. The breads and bakes are outstanding!!! I got three loaves–a Fougasse that was stuffed with cheese, herbs and tomato. I got another flat bread, also stuffed with cheese and herbs, as well as a garlic loaf.
I also got two scones; one sweet, the other savoury. Both were delicious, especially the chocolate walnut. Yum!
If you are in the area, these places are definitely worth checking out.
I haven’t been baking that much these days because my new oven is misbehaving. I’ve attempted to recalibrate the temperature but I can’t seem to get it right yet. My bakes are either getting burned on top and stay raw in the middle, or they stay limp and anemic looking. But today I decided to make a batch of brownies because I was in the mood for something chocolatey. I was prepared to take my chances for the sake of a craving.
This brownie recipe comes from the back of the package of cocoa–no secret ingredients, just good quality cocoa. But not just any cocoa; Dutch processed cocoa. Whenever I hear this term, I picture little blonde people in wooden clogs running cocoa beans through a stone grinder underneath a traditional windmill. It’s really a chemical process that was, in fact, developed by a Dutch man by the name of Coenraad Johannes van Houten back in the 19th century. Dutch processed cocoa is made with an alkalizing agent and it is supposed to be less acidic than naturally processed cocoa. So if you’re recipe calls for baking soda (also known as a leavening agent) to help your bake rise, it will need to react with something acidic like yogurt or buttermilk, because the cocoa powder has a neutral pH and won’t do anything to help those cookies, squares or cakes rise.
The colour of Dutch processes baking power is also darker than natural cocoa powder and is supposed to have a milder flavour.
However these brownies are far from mild. They are fudge-y and rich and full of chocolatey flavour. They are full of butter, sugar, eggs and lots of cocoa. They are dead simple to make (no special folding whipping, resting or anything). The trick is making sure you take them out of the oven before they get over baked. Baking with chocolate means you can’t tell when your bake is done because it doesn’t really change colour the way a blonde batter would.
I took these out after 25 minutes in the oven. Given that my oven is acting up, I probably could have taken them out after 20-ish minutes, but the recipe called for 30 minutes and I reduced it by 5.
I make these even more decadent by slathering on a generous helping of milk chocolate icing. For fun I put some chocolate sprinkles on (they look like baby Smarties). These go great with a cup of tea or a tall glass of cold milk. Or you could just gobble it up sans beverage.
Rodelle Gooey Fudge Brownies
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 x 13 inch pan with a parchment paper and spray lightly with cooking spray.
1 Cup + 2 Tbsp unsalted butter
2 1/4 Cups sugar
1/2 Tbsp vanilla extract
3/4 Cup + 1 Tbsp flour
3/4 Cup + 1 Tbsp Dutch processed cocoa powder
1/4 Tbsp salt (I omitted this)
1/2 Cup semisweet chocolate chips (I upped this to 1 Cup)
3/4 Cup chopped nuts (I omitted this)
Melt the butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl and let cool slightly. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well between each addition. Add the vanilla and mix. Sift the dry ingredients together then combine with wet ingredients until just incorporated. Add chipits and nuts, mix and then pour into the pan. Bake until just firm (maximum 35 minutes). Let them cool completely before removing from the pan and cutting into squares. Enjoy!
I flew back East for the holidays and discovered some very valuable items in my mother’s freezer: Montmorency cherries.
You see, I can’t find tart or sour cherries anywhere on the Left coast. They don’t grow ’em, they don’t sell ’em. They have sweet cherries. Lots of ’em. But no sour cherries. My grandmother used to make a sour cherry pie for dessert on Friday nights. She’d bake it in a brown glass tart pan, that now sits in my kitchen cupboard. She’d make something called a “Mazola No-Roll Pastry,” which was dead simple and always had the perfect bite to it and a smidge of salt, that was the perfect counterpoint to the sweetened sour cherry filling. I still make it and biting into that pie brings back all sorts of nostalgic memories for me.
When I lived back East, I used to buy a huge bucket of pitted cherries from the supermarket for about 20 bucks. I would drain them and measure out enough cherries for a pie, put them in a plastic freezer bag and have enough to outlast the short cherry season in Ontario. I did that this past summer, hence why there were some in my mom’s freezer.
Instead of doing the traditional pie, I decided to change things up and make a batch of frangipane cream for the pie filling, and then I poured the cherries on top and finished it with slivered almonds.
Frangipane is of French origin. It is more of a paste than a pie filling, made of almond flour, butter, sugar and eggs and a hit of almond extract. I just think of it as the filling you find in almond croissants. It’s definitely not marzipan. It was quite a popular choice on the Great British Baking Show and I was curious what all the fuss was about, so that’s why I decided to try baking with it.
I don’t mind it, but I’m not sure it will become my go to filling. It has a very distinct flavour, which is not to everyone’s liking.
I think it baked up beautifully and looked pretty good. My only criticism (which is entirely cosmetic), is that my pie crust shrank too much and so I didn’t get the nice fluted edge I was hoping for.
But it must have tasted good, because there wasn’t any left at the end of the evening…and people were asking for more!
Time for a break from making finnicky desserts and time for some down-to-earth comfort cookies. I fished out a recipe for these cookies that I got from my long time neighbour, Kelly. I remember she brought a freshly baked batch over to our house and they were gone in no time flat.
I can’t remember the last time I made these, probably because the kids can’t take these in their school lunches (or rather, I won’t let them–there are no laws here in California that prevent kids from bringing peanut and nut products to school, unlike in Ontario where Sabrina’s Law exists).
Some would argue these cookies bake best with processed peanut butter like Kraft or Skippy, but I only buy natural peanut butter. Just peanuts!
The butter mixed with the peanut butter was so creamy when I blended it together with the hand mixer.
Then I added the requisite sugar, eggs and flour and voila! beautiful cookie batter.
I found a couple of Dairy Milk bars in the cupboard and decided to crush them up and throw them in the batter instead of using chipits and I’m glad I did.
Just before baking, I used the back of a fork to press the requisite hash marks into each cookie. Because, peanut butter cookies. Right?
The resulting cookies were so creamy and delicious, and once again, they disappeared within a few days. I think the milk chocolate chunks also made a big difference.
These were quick and easy to make and didn’t require much, if any, skill or precision. So go make some!!!
Kelly’s Peanut Butter Cookies
1 Cup peanut butter (I like to use all natural smooth PB)
1 Cup unsalted butter, softened
1 Cup granulated sugar
1/2 Cup brown sugar
1 tsp baking powder
2 1/2 Cups, all purpose flour (or you can do half whole wheat flour for a slightly denser cookie)
2 bars of your favourite chocolate bar (I used Dairy Milk), crushed up into chunks
Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Blend peanut butter and butter together in a standing mixer or with a hand mixer until completely incorporated
Add eggs and blend followed by sugars
Add baking powder and flour(s) and blend until ingredients are incorporated.
Mix in chocolate chunks until evenly distributed
Scoop 1″ balls of dough onto parchment-lined cookie sheet
Take the back of a fork and press firmly down until fork tine marks appear in flattened cookie (but not too hard!)
Bake for ~10 minutes until cookies are lightly browned
Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely (if you can wait that long!)
So if you thought I had a death wish when I decided to tackle puff pastry, think again. Pastry, shmastry! Puff pastry was a cake walk compared to making French macarons for the first time. Now I know why Laduree and Nadege charge a pretty penny for these dainty sweets.
To be honest, I didn’t spend a ton of time researching this recipe and maybe my results are proof that I should have spent more time studying before breaking out the almond flour. But I had six egg whites in the fridge after making those yummy Portuguese custard tarts. And I think I was feeling a little overconfident after making those divine tarts, nay, impatient to prove I could succeed again at making a *Patchka* recipe.
So here’s the deal with French macarons: historians tell a story of their origins in the 18th century around the time of the French revolution. Nuns who were seeking asylum made the meringue-like biscuits to sell in order to pay for their lodging at the local convent (there seems to be a pattern here with members of the cloth having a knack for baking–Portuguese custard tarts, anyone???). However, there are many other versions of the dessert that apparently date back as far as the 8th century.
And the name alone actually comes from the Italian “maccherone,” which means fine dough. There are accounts of future Queen of France, Catherine de Medici bringing the recipe over from Italy in the 1500’s.
The macarons we think of today–the two round biscuits sandwiched with a sweet filling in the middle–didn’t gain popularity until the 1930’s.
I watched an excellent tutorial by John, over at the Preppy Kitchen. He is meticulous and detailed in his explanation of the what, how and why of making macarons. There is even a term called “macronage” when it comes to incorporating the almond flour and icing sugar mixture with the stiffened egg whites. He is also not above pointing out that it took him many attempts before he got a decent batch of the cookies.
Although I followed his instructions religiously, my biscuits did not come out with a nice glossy finish or crispy exterior as I had hoped. I blame the oven entirely. They taste delicious even if they look a little bit withered. And they are nice and fluffy and chewy.
I made a simple chocolate ganache for the filling. Next time I think I’ll try a caramel filling or french buttercream. Or maybe I’ll use some homemade jam!
All these ideas have bolstered my resolve to attempt the recipe again. Just not tomorrow. I need to recover from Round One.
Did my puff pastry cliff hanger work? Well you needn’t wait any longer! I used about a third of my puff pastry recipe to make Portuguese custard tarts, which are one of my favourite pastries.
While the French introduced the world to puff pastry in the 17th century, the world would have to wait until the 18th century before Pasteis de Nata were invented.
Using my handy dandy Google translator, the literal translation of the pastry’s name is “you’re welcome pastry,” and you should thank the monks and nuns of the Jeronimos Monestery near Lisbon for these delightful creations.
I consulted with my tome on Home Baking, by husband and wife duo, Jeffrey Allford and Naomi Duguid, for the recipe.
I can’t say it was all that difficult to prepare, but you should note that you only use egg yolks for the filling, so plan ahead and make sure you’ve got another recipe up your sleeve for those egg whites (hint: recipe #5 involves egg whites!).
I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the filling didn’t call for much sugar and as such, is not that sweet. But it is creamy and silky smooth and egg-y. The secret, I discovered, was to whisk the mixture excessively so there wouldn’t be a single lump or bump in it.
The puff pastry, as you’ll see, was worked very quickly and chilled in the freezer while I prepared the filling (I even had help from some little hands!). It is the perfect vehicle for the filling and compliments to the creamy filling with a crunchy, buttery exterior.
It is baked at a high heat and then at the end gets a quick broil to create that nice browned, almost charred, top.
The tarts are very quickly transferred to a wire rack to cool followed shortly thereafter by devouring, gobbling, you name it.
Anyone who wants to make their own puff pastry from scratch must be asking for a death wish, right? Who, in this day and age of convenience foods would dain to make the most Potchka (Yiddish translated: finnicky) pastry known to mankind? That would be me.
I read about making “rough puff” which is the home baker’s shortcut method of making puff pastry. And I did seriously consider doing that as a time saver. But who was I kidding? I knew this was going to take time so why not roll up my sleeves and take the scenic route.
According to lore, puff pastry was invented by a French pastrycook’s apprentice in the mid 1600’s. Apparently there is evidence that something akin to French puff pastry already existed in Spain, and of course, in Greece there was phyllo dough (which I haven’t attempted to make yet). Regardless of its origins, puff pastry only gained in popularity with the passage of time and is now used as a staple in all sorts of patisserie.
The process starts with making the detrempe–that’s the flour, water and a bit of butter “base.”
This is followed by the beurrage, which is just pounds of butter (that’s three pounds in this particular recipe to be exact), mixed with a wee bit of flour so that it is maleable and doesn’t turn into a giant blob of greasiness.
Following the instructions closely, both of these were pressed into plastic wrap in an 8 inch by 8 inch pan and then placed into the fridge to chill for a minimum of 2 hours.
The next step involves laminating the detrempe and the beurrage together without compromising the integrity of each layer. Both need to be cold but maleable enough to roll out. I followed Anna’s suggestion and actually wrapped the flour mixture in the butter, which is not how most recipes suggest doing it.
I worked quickly so as not to melt the butter layer. I folded and turned my sheets of pastry on itself in thirds a couple times before wrapping it up in a neat package and popping it back in the fridge for more chill time.
I repeated this a couple of times so there would be a good 12 layers or so.
Then I had to figure out what to make with this precious dough…would it be croissants? Tarts? Turnovers? Or should I go savoury and make something like Beef Wellington? Or chicken pot pie? You’ll have to wait until my next post to find out!