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.
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!
Last night I broke down. I spilled many tears and sobbed uncontrollably like a young child. The culprit? Homesickness.
It’s been barely 10 months since we moved from Toronto to San Jose, California and I’m exhibiting all the signs and symptoms of homesickness. I didn’t know what that felt like until it happened. I have felt an overwhelming sadness or malaise that can strike at any moment. Yesterday it hit me when I was unpacking our Halloween decorations. I remembered where each spider, skeleton, ghost and ghoul was placed on the porch and in the garden of our home. Now I find myself trying to find a new perch for the scary rat, or a new post to hang the drooping ghost. Are there hooks and nails for the other decorations? Am I allowed to put new nails into the house I am renting? Those questions seem trivial, but they triggered feelings of anxiety and loneliness beyond words.
I looked up articles online (something everyone knows they shouldn’t do but do it anyway) about homesickness and the first results I got were aimed at students who had left home for college or university; kids who didn’t know how to buy groceries, cook a square meal or find their way to a doctor’s office. Those are things I have mastered, not only for myself but also for my kids and husband. The practical aspects of living somewhere new have come easily to me. Finding doctors and dentists, sussing out the grocery stores for all the different foods we like, getting a driver’s licence, navigating the highways and roads, and opening a bank account. Even though I ran into some bureaucratic red tape along the way, everything went smoothly for the most part (Department of Motor Vehicles excluded, but that’s another story!).
What is much more difficult to master are social circles for adults–the very things that aren’t readily available to you, like they are for my kids with school and their sports teams. Breaking into a new community is far from easy. There are neighbours, school parents and hockey parents, but other than sharing a zip code and the same drop off at school or drive to the rink, nobody feels compelled to befriend me. And why should they? The effort must come entirely from me to reach out, make connections and take risks. This can be incredibly intimidating and uncomfortable depending on your personality.
I consider myself an extrovert so I don’t have trouble approaching a stranger and striking up a conversation. I credit my time as a radio and television producer for giving me the confidence to ask lots of questions and listen to the answers. But that doesn’t mean the effort I’ve put in has reaped overnight friendships, or people I can call upon to help out when I find myself needing someone to watch the kids when I’m in a pinch.
Most days are spent in solitude doing chores around the house or running errands. I talk to the dog a lot, but he’s not much of a conversationalist.
That makes it easy to fall into bad habits like comparing everything to back home–the food, the public transit (or lack thereof), the weather, the healthcare system, the schools, the homes, the neighbourhoods, the stores. It is very easy to critique and criticize what is different and somehow inadequate or disappointing in comparison. What is more challenging is finding the good in a new home and capitalizing on it.
For me that is hiking in the hills nearby and spotting deer and wild turkeys, or weekend trips to the coast for a day at the beach with a picnic lunch. It’s about having the time–and the luxury–to ride my bike to school every day with my son for drop off and pick up; or the time to try new recipes and cook with fresh produce that’s grown within an hour of where I live. Every place has something different to offer and it’s up to me to explore, discover and enjoy those amazing things.
Not being allowed to work has contributed, in some part, to my homesickness. This is the first time in my adult life that I have not earned a pay cheque, which is very disconcerting. I’m used to being self sufficient. But it’s not only the money that matters. Going into an office every day, feeling that you have a skill that adds value, and interacting with like-minded people are very powerful motivators that make you feel part of a community. In the absence of that, it is easy to feel alone and isolated when you aren’t part of “the hive.”
So I am volunteering at my youngest son’s school with the garden club and at my middle son’s school snack bar twice a month. Both keep me close to my kids, but I can’t say I have formed lifelong friends through these activities. I do go hiking with a fellow Canadian who has become my closest friend since moving here. She and I are kindred spirits, and I am so grateful for her friendship. I’m not sure how I would be making it through this year emotionally without her support. Unfortunately I already know that she is moving back to Canada after this school year, which means our time together is fleeting and as my husband says, I should really try and make more friends.
Back to that article I found online about homesickness–it appears everything that I am feeling is normal for someone feeling homesick and while there is no formal psychological diagnosis for the condition, there are plenty of things the article suggests you can do to combat the feelings of loneliness and longing, many of which I am attempting to do.
I think the biggest challenge for me to overcome is my attitude, which can be a huge barrier to happiness. If I believe I’m going to be unhappy and uncomfortable here, then I probably will be. If I decide I’m going to meet people, make new friends and try new things, then moving here could be a positive experience I can look back on with fond memories.
Yes, there will be moments when I can’t help but feel sad and miss the people I love who are back home, but I also know home can be in more than one place–that’s something I’ve told my kids. So it’s time to ditch the hypocrisy and embrace the new.
I decided to give this little pet project of mine a bit of a facelift with a new look. It’s cute, dontcha think? Very girly, which isn’t really me, but it’s easy on the eyes.
I don’t actually have much to tell you about right now so I thought I’d show off the planter at the front of my house. I’m proud to say that I’ve managed to use the same birch logs, some branches and the white berries in the arrangement for the last three or four years. I wish I could do the same with the evergreen boughs, but they just don’t last. Yes, very frugal of me.
New this year are the little battery operated LEDs, which I love, but seem to be rather unreliable. But you must agree, they really do complete the look, don’t they?
Happy Holidays to you all during this unseasonably warm winter evening!
Tonight we had all of our friends from the neighbourhood over to celebrate the eighth night of Hanukkah with us. I think we’re on Year 5 of our annual Hanukkah Party. What started off as a one-time shindig to celebrate the Festival of Lights with all of our gentile friends has turned into a bit of a tradition. And from what I hear, the neighbours look forward to the invitation!Â
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a bit of aÂ go big or go home approach to throwing a party so it should come as no surprise when I tell you I spend days preparing for the two or three hours of crazy that we host. It begins with copious amounts of baking, a Bar Mitzvah-worthy dessert-slash-candy table with a blue, white and silver theme and some delicious homemade latkes and hot corned beef sandwiches (full disclosure: this year I ordered the corned beef from Center Street Deli and it was well worth it).
I have a lot of fun baking and decorating the table and putting out a big spread for everyone. But man, I’m exhausted! So here are some of my photos of the dessert table, which seemed to garner most of the attention.
Call me a glutton for punishment, but every year for the last–oh, I don’t know–four years, my husband and I have hosted a Hanukkah party for our closest neighbourhood friends. You see, we are the token Hebrews in the ‘hood, so most of our friends have never been to a Hanukkah party, let alone tasted a latke. So, we felt it would be a Mitzvah (aka: good deed) on our part if we threw a little shindig to enlighten our friends.
Well that little shindig turned into a big shindig and has become something of a tradition. It has also given me licence to go a bit meshugenah (crazy) with the event planning, decor and yes, a dessert table!
Today I’m giving you a preview of some of my *crazy* ideas. I made a big batch of sugar cookies a la Martha StewartÂ and decorated them with royal icing and some confectioners’ decorative sugar. You will notice a theme of blue, white and silver.Â
I made the dough, chilled it, rolled it out, cut it into the shapes of dreidels, menorahs and stars of David before baking. Then I went to town on the icing. The icing was a piping consistency and I could have piped all the cookies and then flooded them, but I got lazy. So the icing is a little thicker (the kids will love me for it–not the parents) than usual and maybe not as pretty. But I’ll let you be the judge!
Tonight was family pumpkin carving night. This year we have a total of nine–count ’em–NINE pumpkins! Whew!
Mind you, two of those were carved up at a workshop at Lee Valley, my husband’s favourite store. It’s a wonder I let him go in there–he’s like a kid in a candy store.
This time, though, he was there with my dad, who had signed them up for a pumpkin carving workshop with the boys.
The cost of the workshop included a fantastic little set of serrated carving knives.
Take it from me: my world changed tonight after I used this little set. I will never, I repeat, NEVER, go back to carving pumpkins with a standard knife or those cheap-o sets that are sold at this time of the year.
In my last post I showcased some Halloween pumpkins that were my “Pinspiration” for my pumpkin. So I pretty much copied my favourite (the Tim Burton-esque one) by drawing the image freehand on a piece of paper. Then I sprayed the pumpkin with water, “glued” on the piece of paper, traced out the image with a fabric marker thingamabobby and then went to work with the best serrated knife EVER. Here’s how that whole process unfolded…
And here’s Jack, all lit up!
Other than having to pull all the guts out of the gourd, this year’s carving experience could actually be described as pleasant.
So to all my friends, have a safe, candy-filled Halloween and hopefully Environment Canada gets it wrong for Thursday night.