Tag: Baking

Recipe #7: Sour Cherry and Frangipane Pie

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.

Using a food processor was the fastest way to make frangipane cream
That pie shell looked great! (before it was baked)

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.

Sour Cherry and Frangipane Pie

But it must have tasted good, because there wasn’t any left at the end of the evening…and people were asking for more!

Recipe #6: Kelly’s Peanut Butter Chocolate Chunk Cookies

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.

Creamy peanut butter and unsalted butter

Then I added the requisite sugar, eggs and flour and voila! beautiful cookie batter.

Yes, sugar

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.

Chocolate + peanut butter= sheer perfection

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!!!

Fork tine marks are required in peanut butter cookies
Let the cookies completely on a wire rack–if you can resist!

Kelly’s Peanut Butter Cookies

  • 1 Cup peanut butter (I like to use all natural smooth PB)
  • 1 Cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 eggs
  • 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

Instructions

  • 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!)

Recipe #5: French Macarons

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.

Super fine almond flour and icing sugar are sifted not once, not twice, but three times!
Egg whites are whipped to a marshmallow-like consistency
The delicate dance of “macronage” is underway.

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!

Kind of looks like a Neopolitan cookie, doesn’t it?

All these ideas have bolstered my resolve to attempt the recipe again. Just not tomorrow. I need to recover from Round One.

My first batch of vanilla macarons with chocolate ganache filling

The Big Bar Mitzvah (Part 1)

This post has been a long time coming…13 years to be exact! Although I didn’t know it thirteen years ago.

My oldest had his Bar Mitzvah just over a month ago and I feel like I’ve just recovered from the big event.

He did an amazing job reading from the Torah, giving his speech to our guests, and maintaining his confidence and composure the entire day. He really shone like a star that day and was deserving of all the accolades and attention.

My job was to set the scene for our guests after the pomp and circumstance and for that I spent many months planning, plotting, “pinning” and preparing. There were so many details and so many checklists, but here, I will give you a brief glimpse into the celebration that followed the ceremony.

Our brunch began by welcoming our guests to “the cottage.”

Welcome to the Cottage
This was the seating chart for the luncheon

I hired a graphic designer, gave her the guest list in a spread sheet with the table assignments along with some suggested fonts and icons and the dimensions for the foam core board. She was amazing to work with and had the poster delivered right to my front door. We simply mounted the board on an easel right inside the entrance to the reception room.

As people wandered in and found their tables, there was a slide show playing to music projected on to a drop cloth that I had hung on the wall, with patio lights framing it.  The “screen” was flanked by red plastic Muskoka chairs that were draped with wool camp blankets and throw pillows with wildlife imagery such as owls, deer and moose.

All the photos in the slide show were of the family at various family cottages in both summer and winter. Putting together that slide show was a labour of love. I also printed all the photos on to 4″ x 4″ paper, which were used as part of the centrepieces.

Each photo from the slide show was part of the centrepieces

My mother, my husband and I did an assembly line, punching holes into each photo and tying jute twine through the holes. These photos were then hung on the young birch branches in the centrepieces.

Speaking of the centrepieces–these were probably the cheapest DIY centrepieces ever and yet the most personal. I got little red socker plant pots at Ikea–there was a lot of red in the decor because that is my son’s favourite colour–filled them with pea gravel and off cuts of birch branches from my girlfriend’s cottage in North Bay, and the young birch branches were from my mom’s cottage on Georgian Bay.

We stood the pots on round wood “coins” that my husband cut with his chainsaw from fallen trees in the ravine in our neighbourhood. I just had to schlep them all to the car!

And the final touch were the rocks around the bottom of the pot, which were collected by me and my son from the harbour near my mom’s cottage.

So I think all told, we spent about $5 on each centrepiece and the biggest expense was the printing of the photographs.

The additional expense came with the guest keepsakes that I put on each table. These were maple syrup candles in tins. They certainly didn’t come cheap, but I thought it was important to give guests a small memento from the day as a thank you from us.

Each guest received a maple syrup candle as a memento

The brunch was delicious, catered by L-Eat. Niki and Tony did a fabulous job and the presentation of the food was simple and elegant. We made sure everything that was served were things we would typically eat for brunch: french toast with maple syrup, quiche, bagels with all the fixings, yogurt with granola and berries, and as a special treat we arranged to have smoked trout from Kolapore Springs trout farm up near my parents’ cottage.

But the best part of brunch was the dessert table! This is where I truly got to showcase my baking skills, with the help of my mom, sister and mother-in-law. First, I decorated the table with objects that represented my son and the cottage–Scrabble pieces that said “Help Yourself”, antlers, a red model sports car, an old cribbage board, a vintage waterski, red oil lanterns, and a photo of my husband holding our son as a newborn.

All the baked good were displayed on red tin trays, big glass cookie jars with red lids, even the waterski was used to display the homemade butter tarts.

There were homemade salted chocolate chunk cookies, s’mores bites, butter tarts, honey cake, shortbreads, poppy seed cookies, ginger cookies and also chelsea buns from the Thornbury bakery (the only thing I didn’t bake!).

The Dessert Table

 

It wouldn’t be a celebration without a cake, right? Of course I baked a cake! It’s the giant, incredibly chocolatey cake recipe from Deb Perlman’s Smitten Kitchen. It’s the same cake I baked for my parents’ 40th wedding anniversary, except this time I made marshmallows, charred them and put them on the cake. I also made banana chocolate chip cake “logs” and I made flames from melted red and orange lollipops. A candy maker I am not!

Campfire cake

I can’t say the cake turned out as nicely as I would have liked from a visual perspective, but it tasted damn good.

Credit for all the photos goes to Julius Ding of Julius and James Photography. This was their FIRST Bar Mitzvah photo shoot, and they really did capture the essence of the celebration, rather than the staged photos of the family and Bar Mitzvah boy that we all too often see. This was a celebration in real life and I’m so glad Julius was there to capture the moment.

There is so much more to tell you about the day because it didn’t end with the brunch! But I think I’ll save those details for another post. I’m starting to get tired just thinking about it again. Phew!

Feel free to contact me if you have any questions or want to learn more about what I did and how I did or where I got my ideas from.

My first attempt at sourdough bread

After watching Cooked on Netflix, I was inspired to make my own sourdough bread. After all, Michael Pollan swore it was the easiest thing in the world. All it takes is flour, water, and some wild yeast encouraged by the bacteria floating through the air in your house. Easy!

Not so.

My first attempt to make sourdough starter was an abysmal failure. The flour and water looked–and smelled–like glue, which I guess it was.

Then I showed up at work with a homemade sour cherry pie (that’s another post!) and started talking about baking with a colleague. Little did I know that she, too, had been inspired to attempt sourdough bread after watching Michael Pollan and she had met with some success. She offered to share some of her sourdough starter with me, pointed me to a website that had easy to follow instructions and then I was off to the races!

I had my doubts about the starter. It failed once again and I ended up with a loaf of glue. See specimen here:

Glue bread masquerading as sourdough bread
Glue bread masquerading as sourdough bread

So I decided to persevere. For those who know me–and I mean, really know me, I am a relatively impatient person. So waiting for a sourdough starter to be ready, or waiting for bread to proof, are exercises in patience for me. And you can’t rush a good loaf of bread. I fed my starter again and decided to just watch it for about 24 hours. Sure enough it came back to life and started bubbling away, and almost “breathing”. That’s the best way I can describe it. It’s literally alive! When it had filled up the bowl, I decided it was show time.

I mixed the starter with flour and water and mixed it with the dough hook. I added a spoonful of kosher salt too. Some recipes tell you to knead the bread a lot and to do some of the kneading by hand to encourage the glutens to bind with each other. Other recipes say to be careful not to overdo it with the kneading because you don’t want to destroy the wild yeast in the starter that will give the bread that lovely bubbled centre. It’s really hard to know which recipe to follow and what measurements to use when you’re a beginner. This is when the internet is not your friend, but seems to be deliberately working against you to leave you second guessing which is the best recipe to follow.

In the end I found a pretty straightforward recipe at Cultures for Health. There’s even a nifty video that walks you through the recipe, but I decided to try it without watching the video. I think I might watch the video next time.

So here are the results:

In the end the bread was quite tasty–crispy on the outside and nice and soft on the inside with some air bubbles that are indicative of sourdough bread. There is a nice tang to the flavour and the kids seemed to like it, which is a good thing. It didn’t puff up as much as it probably should have after proofing, which could mean one of two things: the sourdough starter wasn’t as mature as it should have been to help the bread rise, or else I didn’t leave it to proof long enough (12-ish hours???).

I can see why making bread is addictive. It’s not an exact science, and yet the success of your bread making depends entirely on science.

The sourdough starter is once again percolating away in the glass bowl on the counter and I look forward to my next attempt at making a loaf of sourdough. Let me know what the secret of your success is when making sourdough. I could use all the help I can get!

This is 41

Last year my birthday fell on a Monday. It was the first day of a new job and I felt I couldn’t ask for the day off and really celebrate it the way I wanted to. I didn’t feel like telling my new colleagues, who were complete strangers to me. But I do remember buying myself a below average slice of red velvet cake at the coffee shop in the lobby of my building on my lunch break to mark the occasion.

I couldn’t even celebrate that night with my family because we were busy taking the kids to hockey games. It shouldn’t have bothered me because I was planning on celebrating that milestone birthday when the weather improved. Nevertheless the day was a bit of a disappointment and I vowed then that I would not let another birthday pass without marking the day in a special way.

Today began with breakfast in bed from my wonderful husband. Check out the apple swan he carved up! What he didn’t know was that I already had plans for breakfast with my Mom so the kids tucked into the cinnamon toast and scrambled eggs.

Breakfast in Bed
Breakfast in Bed

We headed over to Scratch Kitchen for breaky. I had this amazing dish called Soft Scrambled, which was full of sweet caramelized onions, pulled pork and other stuff I can’t remember on top of homemade rustic bread. Yum!

Soft Scrambled from Scratch Kitchen
Soft Scrambled from Scratch Kitchen

After breakfast we headed over to Costco (yeah, I know, not exactly the most exciting birthday destination) to do some shopping for food and other essentials. $325 later we bounced and hit the mall for a bit of retail therapy. The post-holiday sales were great, but most stuff was picked over so the choices were limited. I ended up getting a cute unstructured blazer from Maison Scotch for 70% off! Score!

Things picked up in the afternoon with a visit from my massage therapist who pummelled my leg muscles into submission. I thought I was going to barf it hurt so much. I have since learned there is a term for this sensation–it’s called an “autonomic response.” Apparently this is a good thing and means I am more in tune with my body. Not sure I need to feel everything to the point of being nauseated.

I whipped up a chocolate cake really quickly. I know what you’re thinking: “You mean you baked your own birthday cake? How depressing.” Not at all! I love to bake and it was cake in a box with homemade icing. Super easy. Super quick. Always a crowd pleaser. And pretty!

Chocolate Birthday Cake
Chocolate Birthday Cake

Dinner with the fam came next. It was perfect: Chinese buffet so the kids didn’t have to wait and order off a menu and they could pick what they wanted.

The night ended with a soak in the bath tub and the Downton Abbey Christmas Special.

It really was a great day. And that’s the point–it was great for me. I still think celebrating any birthday, milestone or not, is about more than the day itself. It’s about looking back and reflecting on how I grew and changed as a person over the last twelve months and what I managed to accomplish. It’s also an opportunity to look ahead to the next twelve months and set some goals. I’ve signed up for a half marathon. I want to take courses on photography and Photoshop and I’m chomping at the bit for another design project.

If this is what they call middle age, it feels pretty good to me.

This is 41
This is 41

Hanukkah Sugar Cookies

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 Stewart and decorated them with royal icing and some confectioners’ decorative sugar. You will notice a theme of blue, white and silver. 

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!

IMG_2993
Fresh baked star of David sugar cookies

IMG_3001
Star of David sugar cookies with royal icing, blue confectioner’s sugar and a silver dragee.

Dreidel sugar cookies with blue royal icing and white snowflakes
Dreidel sugar cookies with blue royal icing and white snowflakes

 

Cookies! Cookies! Cookies!

So I went on a cookie making bender last night. And there was a legitimate reason. We are in the midst of a United Way fundraiser at the office, so I thought I’d do my part. We decided to encourage people to make a pledge or donation by enticing them with homemade baking when the munchies hit around 3 in the afternoon. It worked like a charm and here are the results!

I feel like this was my warm up act to the big baking contest next week…the meringues were incredibly popular so maybe I’ll try those again. What do you think???

Polka Dot Party

I wish I had more energy to put into this post but the truth is I’m pooped. So I’m going to keep it short and sweet.

I made yet another birthday party for my middle child–having all three kids with birthdays in the first quarter of the year is both a blessing and a curse. By the time this birthday rolls around every year I always say to myself and whoever will listen, “this is the time I do one of these.” Bu then of course next year arrives and I start planning out the cake, the decorations, the loot bags, the entertainment, the meal….

This year I combined the family and friends parties to kill two birds with one stone however this makes for a rather large and unwieldy party. We had a company that brings exotic animals to the house to teach the kids about the animals; where they are from, what they eat, etc. This kept the kids occupied for one hour. That only left one more hour of the party to survive  feed the kids, do the birthday cake and usher them out the door.

My middle guy wanted a Smartie number cake just like his big brother so I baked a few vanilla cakes, got out the big serrated knife and got to carving. Then I slathered on some yummy creamy cheese icing and embarked on the painstakingly long task of doing a chevron patterned decoration on the cake with Smarties (or chocolate gems as they are referred to at the bulk food store).

Picking up on the Smarties I decided to go with a polka dot theme for the table settings found at none other than Dollarama.

And this was all completed by polka dot and chevron printed loot bags that I scored at Creative Bag (that place is dangerous–I could spend a lot of money there). I kept it simple for the loot: Kinder Eggs bought in large quantity from Costco and a $5 gift card to Indigo. I figured this was both easy and pleasing loot for both parent and child.

Here are a few snaps of the big day.

I made two 9# rounds and used a giant cookie cutter to cut out the centre to form the bottom of the number 6.
I made two 9# rounds and used a giant cookie cutter to cut out the centre to form the bottom of the number 6.

Here is the number 6 cake "in the raw" before applying icing.
Here is the number 6 cake “in the raw” before applying icing.

 

Here's the six cake with a thick coat of cream cheese icing.
Here’s the six cake with a thick coat of cream cheese icing.

And here is the coolest every chevron smartie six cake!
And here is the coolest every chevron smartie six cake!

A view of the polka dot plates I scored Dollarama
A view of the polka dot plates I scored Dollarama

And to cap it all off: polka dot and chevron loot bags!
And to cap it all off: polka dot and chevron loot bags!

 

 

 

 

Sweet Hearts

You know me: I’m an easy target when it comes to finding an excuse to bake for an occasion and what better occasion than Valentine’s Day? So I got out the trusty ol’ sugar cookie recipe care of Martha Stewart and dug out my heart shaped cookie cutter and got to work.

Heart shaped sugar cookies
Heart shaped sugar cookies

I whipped up some royal icing, also care of Martha Stewart, tinted it with a dash of pink gel to get a nice baby pink and got to work icing them.

Pale pink royal icing
Pale pink royal icing

I sampled a cookie–which I don’t normally do because I want to make sure there are enough for the kids to give out to all their classmates, but we had plenty. I was pleasantly surprised…it had a nice crispy outside and soft and moist inside. And the icing was sweet but it didn’t overwhelm the cookie. Now I remember why this is always my go to cookie recipe.

Sweet Heart cookies
Sweet Heart cookies

 

 

 

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