Category: Baking

Oh So Thankful For Good Food

My appetite has excellent timing. It’s been “on leave” for a while. Ironically, my stomach isn’t fond of the food that I like to eat. In fact, my entire digestive tract doesn’t like anything I put down my gullet. Humor me here for a minute: imagine eating a simple meal; it could be toast with peanut butter and a banana with a glass of O.J. in the morning. Or maybe a bowl of soup and tuna sandwich for lunch. Now imagine not feeling the slightest bit hungry when you’re supposed to be eating those meals and a full three hours later you feel as though you’re going to upchuck the sandwich, salad and the full breakfast. These have been the joys (or misfortunes) of my dining experiences as of late. I brought this to my doctor’s attention several months ago. This was followed by some tests, which included drinking the most awful chalky concoction after which I was expertly tipped flat on a cold metal table while having my innards X-ray’d. I’ve even been injecting with radioactive nuclear medicine, which I’ve been assured will not shorten my lifespan nor make me glow in the dark. Neither of these tests has revealed the great mystery of my incredible indigestion. However the doctor decided to put me on a prescription strength anti-acid, which I think has helped my case. I no longer wake up in the middle of the night with the feeling of someone’s fist forcing its way up my esophagus. But the most miraculous improvement has been my appetite and it couldn’t have returned at a better time. Thanksgiving weekend is a glutton’s wet dream come true. It’s the harvest. There is no shortage of good, fresh food. So I decided to embrace the spirit of the holiday and cook and bake for my family while up in prime harvest territory: at the cottage. Saturday’s dinner consisted of chicken stew with chickpeas, sweet and yellow potatoes and sweet onion. We had a fabulous salad of fresh lettuces on the side and not one but TWO pumpkin pies! We only polished off one of the pies, but that meant I could use the dish to bake the most scrumptious apple pie for the Thanksgiving dinner. I decided to pay homage to the slow food movement by making beer-braised beef short ribs, steamed savoy cabbage with roasted chestnuts and garlic mashed potatoes. Yes, I roasted the chestnuts and the garlic. And let’s not forget the pies that came at the end of the meal. It was one of those meals that makes you want to hibernate for the winter or put on a cable-knit sweater and cozy up by a fire. And guess what? Not a single bout of indigestion the entire weekend (you know I’m going to live to regret writing that down). Boy was I thankful this weekend, if for no other reason than I was able to enjoy a good meal with my family for the first time in months. To tell you the truth I would have been just as happy eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich if it meant  I could eat without fear of my food revisiting me in the middle of the night. But having a good meal go down certainly doesn’t hurt.

Beer braised beef short ribs
Beer braised beef short ribs
Garlic mashed potatoes
Garlic mashed potatoes
Savoy cabbage and chestnuts
Savoy cabbage and chestnuts
Not one, but TWO kinds of pie!
Not one, but TWO kinds of pie!

Just Peachy

You know it’s harvest season in Ontario when the peaches are out at the Farmers’ Markets. I like a good juicy peach to sink my teeth into at this time of year, but what I love even better is the peach crisp I make with them. In years past I would buy a basket or two, wait to for the fruit to get nice an ripe and that have at ’em but always with some apprehension? Was the fruit ripe enough? Would I be able to get the peel off easily when I blanched them? Would the fruit come away from the pit easily? Well, any misgivings I had about the success rate of my peeling and pitting process are now a thing of the past. I learned from a very helpful lady selling peaches at the market that I needed to wait for the “Freestone” variety, and not use the “Clingstone” variety. So I waited a week and picked up a couple baskets at the Metro Square Farmers’ Market this past week. As the name would suggest, the flesh “clings” to the pit, whereas the freestone variety comes away from the pit with ease. And rather than blanch the fruit in hot water for 30 seconds followed by a quick dip in ice water, I pulled out my handy dandy Zyliss serrated peeler, which made the entire peeling and pitting process an absolute dream. I think I cut down the entire prep time by at least half. I peeled and sliced about a dozen peaches into a corning ware dish. To that I added a 3/4 cup mixture of granulated and light brown sugar along with a couple tablespoons of flour to absorb the liquid. For the crisp I combined half a pound (yes, that’s half a brick) of butter with a couple cups of flour, a cup of quick oats (not instant), another half cup of the light brown sugar and just a smidge of salt (I use sea salt). I baked it until the fruit essentially starts to bubble up through the crisp, but I usually know it’s ready before I’ve even laid eyes on it because my entire house smells like the aroma of butter, sugar and baked peaches….mmmmm! My first crisp of the harvest season must have been a hit at my nephew’s birthday party, because most of it was gone. I even got complimented on the crisp by Alannah, a professional baker, which made me feel pretty darn good. I wish you could smell and taste this crisp through the screen it really is that good and I really don’t take credit for it; the peaches do all the work. I just put the ingredients all together. You’ll have to try it while Freestone peaches are still in season, or you could be mishugina like me and make a whole wack of them assembly line-style and stick them in the freezer (unbaked) until you need them for a special occasion. Nothing beats a fresh Ontario peach. Nothing.

Freestone Peaches
Freestone Peaches
Peach Crisp
Peach Crisp

Pie in the sky

I like pies. I especially like making pies. Savoury, sweet, I like ’em all. However, I don’t always have the time to dedicate to pie making. I usually go on a pie making bender when the various fruits are in season, most notably in the Fall when apples are in season. I make them assembly line-style, coring, peeling and seasoning the apples. Setting them aside while I cut the pastry (old school style with two knives) and press it into the pie dish (no rolling pin here, since I make a crumbly version). Then comes the apple filling, followed by the crumble top. At this stage, I usually wrap up the pies and pop them into the freezer until I need to bake one. Right now my freezer is EMPTY of all pies, so it’s a good thing the strawberry season is just around the corner. My most recent pie was a pecan pie. I actually don’t eat this pie because it’s like a giant butter tart, which is good if you love butter tarts–and I do–but for some reason I prefer the small single serving to the slice of pie. Anyhow, my sister-in-law put in a special order for my brother-in-law. He just turned 40 and we had a party to celebrate. Pecan pie is highly coveted by my husband’s family, particularly my father-in-law. So on special occasions like birthdays, I oblige and make a pecan pie. The recipe isn’t too complicated, again it’s just about having the time to make the pastry, cooking the sugar and corn syrup, add the eggs and vanilla and then place the pecans just so before baking it. I do love the way the pie looks so regal, but I can’t attest to the flavour. You’ll just have to make it yourself and let me know!

Homemade Pecan Pie

Homemade Pecan Pie

Summer daze

I failed to inform you all that I was going on hiatus, but have since returned. Maybe that’s because I wasn’t planning on going on hiatus. It just sort of happened. But now I’m back. Without pictures for now, but not for long.

It was strawberry season around the time my hiatus began (it almost sounds like a disease or a terrible medical condition, doesn’t it?). I took the kids strawberry picking at Whittamore’s Berry Farm where we filled a very large bucket full of sweet, ripe red berries. Many were eaten but most were turned into yummy jam, which I love to eat on fresh bread, as do the kids. This activity always brings back memories of summers spent with my grandparents at their cottage in Wasaga beach. I even have a picture of my grandmother and me standing with a big basket full of berries glued to the inside of a cookbook my mother made for me that’s full of my grandmother’s tried and true recipes. We made the jam around the same time that my kids were finishing up their school year (well, more like daycare, but school no less) and I needed good gift ideas for the teachers so I gave each of them a jar of my homemade jam (pictures to come).

strawberry-jam-montage

More recently we’ve been picking and eating raspberries, which I admit aren’t as exciting as strawberries, but they also hold a special place in my heart because my grandparents used to have a veritable forest of them growing in their yard, which has since moved to my parents’ yard. When my parents moved, they took cuttings from my grandparents’ garden and we attempted to grow raspberries at their previous house. When they moved to their current house, they took the raspberries with them and some five years later, the berries are bountiful.  I plan on making a bumbleberry pie with them, but I’m still trying to find a good recipe….let me know if you have any suggestions. I’d prefer only using fruit that’s local and in season now.

raspberry-montage

Bread Pudding

Whether it’s a scrap of paper, a worn-out tee shirt or bananas beyond their ripeness I am not one to simply toss something that appears to have seen better days or lost its apparent usefulness. The old adage,”Waste not, want not” is alive and well in my household. I often know what new form these items will take; that scrap of paper often becomes a grocery shopping list and that worn-out tee shirt gets cut into dusting rags and those bananas are frozen until it’s time to make my amazing banana cake. Just like the bananas, food in my fridge and pantry often find new life only to be devoured by the family. This past weekend I had the challenge of finding a recipe that would help use up some leftovers in my fridge and pantry; buttermilk and challah bread. A bit of a conundrum to be honest. And then I thought of the perfect marriage: bread pudding. I had recently sampled a delicious version of it at Pusateri’s down in Yorkville. I knew I couldn’t duplicate the recipe exactly since I didn’t pay much attention to the ingredients as I was scarfing it down. So I did a search and came across a fairly simple recipe on Epicurious.com. It’s a low-fat buttermilk bread pudding recipe with strawberry sauce. I omitted the sauce since I didn’t have the time or the inclination to make it. The recipe also called for nutmeg sprinkled on top. I substituted this with cinnamon. So I sliced up the half loaf of challah bread (for those who don’t know what this is, it’s a sweet-ish egg bread that Jews tend to eat on the Sabbath–think of it as the sacramental loaf–perfect for french toast too!), laid it in the bottom of my dish and poured the egg, sugar, vanilla & buttermilk mixture over top. Once set in a pan with water, I baked it for roughly an hour until the custard set. Just to make it a little more interesting, I squirted some chocolate syrup on top. It ended up being a huge hit with the family and friends we had over for a barbeque on Sunday evening, and again for leftovers at my parents’ on Monday night. So I think I’ll keep that recipe handy the next time I am faced with half a loaf of bread and a partially used carton of buttermilk. If you have any good “leftovers” recipes, please share them with me!

Buttermilk Bread Pudding
Buttermilk Bread Pudding

 

Lunching With The Ladies

Meet Arlene. A lady of many talents. DIY’er, graphic artist, designer, mother, gourmand and baker. In this particular category we are kindred spirits. For the last nine months or so, I had the pleasure of working with Arlene on a television show–she as a stylist, me as a producer. Over the course of the nine months we exchanged recipes, discussed cooking and baking methods and even had the odd “bake off.” For this, the rest of the staff was grateful. Since production of the show has wrapped, we have all been scattered like seeds to the wind, keeping in touch primarily through Facebook.  But today Arlene and I, along with Lindsay, an equally talented and fellow show stylist, joined us for a bite of lunch at my place. I provided most of the nibbles, but the topper were the perfectly tangy, sweet and just gooey enough lemon squares Arlene baked. I could have inhaled the entire pan, but that would have been unladylike of me. So I restricted myself to just one, but kept a plateful to eat after my guests had departed. Lemon squares can be finnicky. The shortbread base needs to be baked for a brief period of time before the lemon filling is poured over top. And the filling needs to be baked long enough to set, but not too long. If you overbake the squares, you’ll end up with a burnt base and hard, chewy lemon filling. And if underbaked, the filling just oozes everywhere, making an awful mess. Not the least bit enjoyable to sink your teeth into. Thankfully this was not the case as I gingerly removed the squares from the pan, which came out perfectly, well, square.

 

The lovely & talented Arlene
The lovely & talented Arlene

 

Arlene's lemon square
Arlene's lemon square
 

 

Lindsay, stylist extraordinnaire
Lindsay, stylist extraordinnaire

On The Menu: Stir Fry

Stir fry is a crowd pleaser on any given weeknight in our home and tonight was no exception. It’s an especially rewarding meal when the parts of the sum are  ingredients left over from other recipes; not enough to make something great on their own, but united, they make an outstanding entreé. No stir fry can exist without its vegetable component so with half a head of green cabbage I added some celery, carrots, beans and mushrooms. To this I added my protein in the form of a few pieces of chicken and a few pre-cooked shrimp that were both kicking around in the freezer. In my pantry I found a package of green bean thread, otherwise described as vermicelli glass noodles. These are fantastic because they give you that substantial carb kick without the starchiness. According to the Gourmet Traveller they are made from the mung bean and tapioca and virtually flavourless, making them ideal for taking on the flavour of the dish you are cooking. I simply soaked them in warm water and once soft enough, cut them with scissors (they are quite long, like hair). I fried up some garlic and onion, added the protein, followed by the veggies. Pour in some soya sauce for that salty flavour, then add some chicken soup stock, cook until the veggies soften up a bit and toss in the noodles. The kids devoured dinner and there was so much we have enough for lunches tomorrow.

Normally I don’t serve dessert. Rather, I don’t call dessert  “dessert.” I don’t believe meals should always be followed by something sweet, so there are no expectations in my house that after dinner comes something sugary and sinful. Why? Those of you who have children already know the answer, but for the uninitiated it goes something like this: if a young child is aware that something “better” is on the menu, they will eat as little as possible, if anything at all, in anticipation of the sugary treat that awaits. So I set the expectation pretty low–no dessert. Tonight was an exception. As part of my Spring cleaning, I delved into the freezer drawer and discovered a few precious bananas. I immediately knew those pathetic looking brown fruit would soon turn into the most moist and scrumptious cake ever. So I baked a banana bundt cake. Normally I throw in a cup of chocolate chips, but in my haste I forgot. To make up for this oversight I iced the cake in a lovely mocha chocolate glaze. I wish you could taste it through the screen, but alas, the developers at Apple have yet to incorporate all five senses into the online world. For now you will simply have to enjoy the view from your side of the monitor….and if you’re lucky, I’ll post the recipe and you can try baking it yourself. I consider this cake one of my tried and true stand-bys. My mom gave me the recipe years ago and it came to her from a good friend. It never fails to please, and I’m pleased it never fails.

Banana Bundt Cake with mocha icing
Banana Bundt Cake with mocha icing
Banana Cake slice
Banana Cake slice

Bridal Shower Baking: Devilishly Sweet

There are few things in life I find more rewarding than baking a wonderful dessert for a special occasion. For some, that might seem a bit provincial. How could baking a cake possibly bring one the satisfaction that others derive from much loftier activities like running a marathon or building a freestanding structure for all to admire? Yes, it’s true, I get off on the small things in life. It’s not that I bake to impress or gloat. I bake for the sheer pleasure of it and simply because I enjoy seeing others enjoy my “bakery.” Today was no exception when I baked two delectable desserts I served at a bridal shower for my colleague, Angela. Angela is getting married in just under a month and I wanted to make something appropriate to the occasion, so why not bake something sweet and pretty and something sinfully and naughty? The “angel” dessert was a lovely layered lemon cake I discovered on Martha Stewart’s website. It’s called a 1-2-3-4 Lemon Cake. This cake is very finnicky to assemble; first I made a lemon curd filling the night before. Then I had to split the batter into two pans for baking. Once cooled I sliced both cakes in half with a serrated knife and then reassembled them with the lemon curd in the middle of each layer. The cake is topped with a whipped cream sweetened with vanilla extract and icing sugar, followed by fresh berries and a light dusting of icing sugar. It looked magazine worthy in presentation and the flavour was spot on; not too tart, not too sweet with a nice, light texture. If the remaining wedge on the plate was any indication of the cake’s success, I would hazard to guess people liked it. A lot.

For the “devil” dessert I made Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten’s brownie pudding. Just as the name suggests, this is a gigantic, rich chocolate brownie baked in a water bath (or as the French like to call it, “au bain marie”) for EXACTLY one hour. If baked correctly, the brownie has a cake-like perimeter and a pudding-like centre. I think the secret to the success of this dessert is not only in the texture, which truly is heavenly, but also in the vanilla bean scraped into the batter….and the chocolate….and the butter. Did I mention the chocolate?

Both were a hit with the crowd. I did sample each of the desserts and even I would pay money to serve them at my next soirée. As I have mentioned in past posts, if anyone were willing to pay good money for my baking talents, I’d hang my shingle outside my door. But I’m not sure anyone would be willing to pay, say, $500 for a lemon cake or, say, $250 for an oversized brownie. Ah, sweet dreams. Truly sweet dreams.

1-2-3-4 Lemon Cake
1-2-3-4 Lemon Cake
Sinful Brownie Pudding
Sinful Brownie Pudding

Flourless Chocolate Cake

Yes, Passover is over. But I couldn’t let it go by without mentioning my flourless chocolate cake. You see, my husband’s birthday falls in and around the time of this blessed holiday. This isn’t the end of the world if you’re an adult, but if you’re a kid, well then it is the end of the world because your cake choices are severely limited by the restrictions associated with Passover. No Angel Food Cake, no anything cake that requires baking powder, baking soda or flour. So your options are really limited to ice cream cake and cheesecake. But what kid is going to want cheesecake? And after a long, cold winter what kid is going to want to indulge in a mouth numbing brain freezing birthday cake? So I say to heck with it! Bake a really good chocolate cake, minus the flour. I came across this recipe quite by chance. It’s not in a Jewish cookbook so it isn’t even designed to address the dietary restrictions of Passover. It just happens to fit the bill. Come to think of it, it’s also a great cake to make for someone who can’t eat any gluten. I found the recipe in a book called “The Clueless Baker” penned by Evelyn Raab, who recently retired as food editor for Today’s Parent Magazine after twenty years. I own many a cookbook but I must say, of them all I really enjoy Evelyn’s wit and sense of humour in this book. I wouldn’t classify this recipe as “easy” or “beginner,” because there is some egg separating involved and that can be a little dicey for some people, not to mention the folding of the stiffened egg whites. So this recipe isn’t for the faint of heart. But once it’s been made, it can be enjoyed by all! It’s rich, not overly sweet and smooth much like a chocolate mousse. I’ve included a couple pictures, which really don’t do it justice. If you really want the full sensory experience, bake it.

Flourless Chocolate Birthday Cake
Flourless Chocolate Birthday Cake

KIDS’ BIRTHDAY CAKES

I think it’s fitting that during the one week of the year I am not allowed to partake in eating any food stuffs made with leavening agents (eg. baking powder) I’m going to write about birthday cakes. Those who know me well know that I love to bake. I’ve always dreamed of selling cakes, pastries, cookies and breads at a bakery but I’m not sure that romantic vision would translate into cold hard cash. I don’t think I’d like to wake up at the crack of dawn to bake baguettes and chocolate chip cookies for customers only willing to pay me 2 bucks a loaf and 50 cents a cookie.  I have yet to figure out the business model that would allow me to bake my treats at my leisure and at at the same time convince a paying customer that my cakes are worth $500 a pop. So until I turn that dream into a reality I like to bake for my family. In particular, since becoming a Mom, I started challenging myself to bake birthday cakes for my two boys that were kid-friendly to look at, but adult-friendly to taste.

This year I baked my younger son a rich chocolate cake in a cake mould shaped like a race car. I “mounted” the #2 blue car on a sheet of chocolate chip cookie iced to look like asphalt. The cake recipe came from the original Barefoot Contessa cookbook  and the cookie recipe, which I doubled, came from Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa Parties! My older son, who turned 5, had far more specific stipulations about what kind of cake he wanted and how exactly it should look. He vascillated between a vanilla “Buzz Lightyear” cake and a lemon “Batman” cake but I reminded him he had the Buzz Lightyear cake for his 4th birthday, so he settled on the latter. So a lemon cake it was (a sophisticated palate for a 5-year-old, no?).  The cake recipe came from Martha Stewart and it’s called a “1-2-3-4 lemon cake.” There’s a lovely lemon curd that I made to go between the layers and the icing is just a simple butter cream. Take a look at the cake I made for the little guy this year.

Blue Race Car Cake
Blue Race Car Cake
Head-On View
Head-On View