29 December 2008

...and Hagia on her blanket and I with a nightcap...

...collapsed on the chesterfield,
for a long winter's nap...

No, sorry. No Daring Baker contribution from me this month...eight fruitcakes and 20 dozen cookies have pretty much rendered me exhausted for any more Christmassy baking.

Still recovering from three hours of gluttony on Christmas Day and the almost annual Boxing Day turkey pot pie making extravaganza.

Will be back in the New Year. Until then, please keep safe and have a lovely, festive, soused, tea-totalling, quiet and joyous New Year.


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25 December 2008

Happy Christmas!

Photographed are the lovely, lovely biscuits as part of the Cookie Exchange I organised this year. I'm never disappointed with the sweet, buttery, creative and delicious things my colleagues produce. Even Beelzebub mostly behaved--the true Christmas miracle, I think.

So, what did we get? Top: Cherry-Nut Christmas Cookies, Brown Buttercrunch cookies, Middle: Button Cookies, Chocomint Crinkles, Bottom: Whipped shortbreads

Personally, I think Christmas screams shortbread as far as biscuits go. For such a simple treat -- butter, sugar and flour--it's amazing the variations out there. Here's the recipe, for those of you looking for something that's virtually foolproof:

Whipped Shortbreads
1/2 cup of butter
1 1/2 cups flour
1 cup icing sugar

Preheat oven to 170C/350F

Combine ingredients and beat for 10 minutes.

Drop from teaspoon on to ungreased cookie sheet.

Decorate if desired (sprinkles, cherry, etc.)
Bake for 8 to 12 minutes (or until lightly brown on bottom) and cool completely on cookie sheet before removing.

Makes approx. 36 small shortbread.

All the best to you and yours...


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22 December 2008

Milk Calendar Mondays

Well here we are...the final Milk Calendar Monday. I'd like to add "ever" to the end of that last sentence, but who knows, it may come back...but not for a long, long time.

The new calendar arrived a few weeks ago and I do admit that, at first glance, the recipes look more interesting via Indian, Thai, Greek and Vietnamese influences, but it also keeps some of what really bugged me in the 2008 calendar--I don' think anyone will successfully convince me that adding three cups of milk to a curry is a good thing.

The final 2008 recipe is their Almond Cranberry Loaf. Gosh, it looked pretty on the calendar...and it was marginally seasonal--cranberries always get me into a Christmassy mood. The recipe read well enough, and as usual the "for the adventurous" recommendation of adding dried apricots and substituting hazelnuts for almonds made me sigh...heavily.

Here, I admit to a couple of changes, to suit what was in my pantry. I'd actually run out of milk the day I made this, so instead I used the equal amount of yoghurt. I also was in the midst of fruitcaking (yes, I am a charter member, founding president and chief fruit macertator of the Fruitcake Liberation Front), so I was up to my elbows in pecans and chucked them into the bread instead of almonds. But I did use the apricots as recommended for the adventurous.

The bread itself wasn't too bad--a bit heavy, and I do like my fruit breads fruitier. Overall, a mostly inoffensive cake.

For those of you who want to relive my pain, here's a link to all the Milk Calendar Monday adventures.

I don't know about you, but I think I deserve a mug of heavily cognac-ed egg nog after this year-long adventure.


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19 December 2008

I'm an e-Auntie

No foodish post, but some important foodish news...

Our very dear Annemarie of Ambrosia and Nectar has some very wonderful news.


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16 December 2008

Ladies who lunch: Spiced Pickled Pears

To me, pears are forever and inextricably linked to cold weather.

Every so many autumns My Dear Little Cardamummy puts up jars and jars of stewed pears. For whatever reason, I only recall them brought up on extremely cold nights, warmed in their sweet viscous syrup spiced with cloves and cinnamon mixing wth rivulets of melted ice cream. Quite possibly the best and most comforting wintery dessert I can think of.

The other week, when I invited a friend over for Sunday lunch, I pored over cookbooks looking for warming, tasty and (of course) none-too labour intensive. Making matters a bit more interesting is the fact she is a vegetarian, so my usual fall back of roast chicken or perhaps another a good, brunchy tableful including bacon and sausage, wasn't in the cards.

Bound and determined to do anything but pasta (I remember my veggie days and the unending platefuls of pasta served because they really didn't know what else to feed me) I went to my favourite vegetarian cookbook, Delia's Vegetarian Collection (yes, Delia Smith before she sold out to the semi-homemade crowd) for inspiration. I'm not sure which part caught my eye -- the bleu cheese strudel or the spiced, pickled pears that accompany it. Granted, they aren't my mum's stewed pears, but there were familiar elements -- sweetness, spice and soft flesh.

They were incredibly easy to make and, more importantly, they could be made ahead. Even though they went really well with the strudel (bleu cheese and pears are such the classic duo), they, complete with their amber liquid would nicely accompany a roasted pork loin or duck.

Spiced Pickled Pears
adapted from Delia Smith's Delia's Vegetarian Collection, p 158
Serves six

110g brown sugar
340ml apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
1 Tbsp whole peppercorns
6 juniper berries, crushed
6 hard pears, peeled leaving the stems intact

Preheat oven to 190C/375F.

Add everything but the pears to an ovenproof pot (I used my smaller Dutch Oven), and while stirring contantly to dissolve the sugar, bring it up to a boil. Place the pears on their sides in the liquid, lid the pot and pop it into the oven for 30 minutes.

After the half-hour point is up, carefully turn over the fruit and return the lidded pot to the oven for another 20-30 minutes, or until tender.

Remove from the oven and allow the fruit to cool in their liquid before serving one pear per person.


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13 December 2008

On My Rickety Shelves: Nigella Christmas

Thanks to the lovely people at Random House Canada, a copy of this month's cookbook selection was delivered to my kitchen.

Nigella Christmas: food, family, friends, festivities
By Nigella Lawson
Alfred A. Knopf/Random House Canada
288 pages; $50

Christmas does strange and occasionally deluded things to people. Overcome with seasonal cheer, nostalgic traipses to family dinners which may or may not have actually happened, or simply psychic pressures for those who need a GPS to find their kitchens to become instantaneous domestic goddesses (or gods) sees many people planning grand yet intimate entertaining. Booksellers line windows with covers featuring beautifully simple yet ornate tables complete with celebrity authors with whiter than white teeth bared in a welcoming grin that exudes “There’s no way you can mimic in a few hours what the small militia of cooks, stylists and other sorts take weeks or months to do…but I’ll let you believe you can…” Television specials are little better: perfectly coiffed, presenters with nary a drop of exertion or stress-induced dew punctuates the ease in which Stepford homemakers can pull together a perfect Christmas for the perfect set of family and friends.

Perfection is never my goal. Deliciousness is. Mind you…when others seem to push their culinary envelope, I’m more than content to fall into familiar routines. Don’t get me wrong. I love my November-December foodish rituals: fruitcakes and sticky toffee puds, dozens upon dozens of cookies, turkey with the trimmings…cognac. There’s a sense of comfort in doing the same old-same old. But at the same time there’s a part of me that searches for something new or, at the very least, a new-to-me way to prepare something not so new…that doesn’t eat up the last remaining moments of a far-too-crammed schedule.

Nigella Lawson’s latest recipe collection, Nigella Christmas: food, family, friends, festivities, promises readers practical, no-nonsense holiday inspiration. A companion tome to her 2007 three episode Nigella’s Christmas Kitchen, Lawson provides additional recipes and advice to those hoping for entertaining that can run from elegant to homey.

The book itself is what I’ve come to expect from a post How To Be A Domestic Goddess Lawson: gorgeous, glossy with La Lawson herself as the ultimate bit of food porn, tucked between sparkly-topped biscuits, glistening and glazed cocktail sausages, and juicily studded gammon. Recipes are divided into nine sections, each focussing on a different part of cheery holiday entertaining, including suggestions for “mass catering” and not-so mass catering for cocktail parties, side dishes friendly suppers, Christmas baking edible gifts, pages on both the main holiday meal along with a Christmas brunch, hot drinks and, as is her way, foods to combat the season of overindulgence. Heck. She even offers a stress-relieving Christmas rota to help plan the big day.

For me, Lawson’s lure is her words. My goodness, she’s not afraid to use her vocabulary…nor does she seem overly concerned with dumbing herself down for the masses—where else, in modern writing, would one read
“So the following, I hope, will allow the abstemious to raise a garish glass
with the rest of us.”
Her turns of phrase are voiced with experience, practicality and an honesty that never seems forced or contrived. One of my favourite lines is about the Tiramisu Layer Cake (p93):
“I wish I were the sort of person who could make enough but no more, but that’s
never going to be the case: when I made this for my brother’s birthday, he came
back round for a couple slices the next day. And that’s the way I like it.”

The recipes are trademark Lawson: practical, delicious and rooted in tradition but updated to modern flavours and tastes. For example her “luscious dinner for 6-8” (p70) features a lamb and date tagine, red onion and pomegranate relish with gleaming maple cheesecake for dessert. No, in this case it’s not everyday food, but it’s warm and hearty food to be shared with friends. Each recipe is easily followed and has make-ahead or freeze-ahead tips within the margin. Most, if not all, are photographed. Most of the recipes serve at least six people, with relatively few for smaller groups of diners.

One thing I was quite concerned about prior to receiving the book was North American publisher’s preoccupation with translating weights into volumes—grams of flour to cups of flour. Rarely, in my experience, are the Americanised instructions as accurate as the original (and dare I venture a guess that there are problems when going the other way ’round); mentions of problems in her earlier tomes are scattered far and wide throughout the blogosphere. Thank goodness the good people at Random House Canada did not winkle away at the original text. As far as I can tell everything is left in its original English. Yes this may pose problems for some, but really…all you need to do is buy a scale (mine’s from Canadian Tire) and look up the Centigrade to Fahrenheit conversion.

All that said, the value of a cookbook is in the cooking. Wherever possible, I scaled down the recipe to serve four or so people.

Cuban Cure Black Bean Soup (p264)
This is what I call a “pantry soup”—pretty much everything can be procured from a tin (okay, not the sausage, herbs or onions, but still) and combined into something quite tasty. This is my new favourite soup—spicy, hearty and a flavourful broth.

Potato, Parsnip and Porcini Gratin (p64)
Loved the smokiness and sweetness from the star anise and parsnips. The only thing I didn’t like was how the fat separated from the cream, leaving a bit of an oil slick. I’d probably increase the amount of milk while decreasing the cream.

Rolled stuffed loin of pork (p 158)
My friend called this pork-stuffed pork, wrapped in pork, which is an incredibly accurate description. A great balance between sweet and salty and very, very easy to make. Chose to forego the ruby sauce...wasn't in a saucy mood.

Incredibly Easy Chocolate Fruit Cake (p180)
As its title beckons, it is incredibly easy to make. I’ve made it for our Christmas pudding so I can’t say how it will taste…but it’s bound to be moist—not for its regular boozification, but for the chopped prunes.

Truth be told, I’m usually sceptical about holiday cookbooks—they overpromise on dreams and underdeliver on ease. Not Nigella Christmas. Her home-friendly recipes and guidelines make this book extremely easy to use…at Christmas and whenever you need to cook a special meal for family or friends.

So how does it rate?
Overall: 4.5/5
The breakdown:
Recipe Selection: 4/5
Writing: 5/5
Ease of use: 4.5/5
Yum factor: 4.5/5
Table-top test: Lies flat

Kitchen comfort-level: Intermediate
Pro: Gorgeous words that accompany easy and delicious recipes
Con: This is crowd cooking—not many options for intimate entertaining


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10 December 2008

All work and no play...

...is not the way to live any life...really.

All that pent-up play was bound to burst out in some way. No: not in the kitchen. Sorry. No recipe today. Yes: I know I've not posted anything foodish in a little bit. But, as my regular readers know, sometimes real life takes over and I just don't have the opportunity to cook or post.

My lost-for-far-too-long play unleashed itself at last night's Toronto Duran Duran concert in Toronto. Yes, I'm a fan. Yes, they're still touring (minus Andy Taylor). Yes, we (that's Cathy, the music trivia queen in with me--taking the picture was her friend Amy) had a great time, lost our voices and danced for hours. Oh...and the songs from Red Carpet Massacre are much better live than the recording. Just in case anyone was wondering.

Whenever I'm in Toronto and can manage to get my schedule to match up with our favourite Cream Puff's, we share a meal or two. Luckily enough this morning we were able to meet up at my favourite breakfasty-brunchy place in The Big Smoke.

Even though we always have a great time together--she's such a lovely, witty, intelligent and compassionate soul--I must admit I was brave to ask her for an early-ish breakfast after a night out...not necessarily at my best after being out 'til late and gossiping until later. There's a reason there's no morning-after photo of me. Want an idea? Scramble the curls, add a bleary-look of pained concentration along with three times the make-up from the concert photo...

She had pancakes and sausage, and I had quite possibly the best morning after the night before breakfast I could hope for--a full English (toasted malted bread, potatoes, fried tomatoes, fried mushrooms and poached eggs). Well-fed and happy we parted, each to our own offices.

All I know is that I need to play more often...


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03 December 2008

In a pickle

Well, yes.

I could be speaking of the current
Parliamentary-constitutional issue that's before us. For those Canadians who, a few weeks ago, wished for some excitement in our political sphere, I think you'll find that things have gotten a wee bit peppier on The Hill.

And I know I'm not the only one who's heard the occasional "
prorogue" as "perogy," summoning a former GG, the late The Rt. Hon. Ray Hnatyshyn, in hopes for a recipe or two.

Perhaps that will be the next post...

But for now, I'm writing about pickles. Cucumber pickles, to be accurate.

I must admit that I'm a bit of a sour pickle addict I come by it honestly as My Dear Little Cardamummy is also one. And I must admit that prior to this past summer, I've never made pickles. My Dear Little Cardamummy decided years ago (20, I believe) to make cucumber pickles...without a recipe. And as with so many adventures, she doesn't experiment in small batches. No. She made many, many, many jars of pickles. In fact, she opened the last jar this year. No. It didn't keep.

So this year we made pickles. Well...I made pickles. She wasn't up to standing near a stove of vinegar so I wound up replenishing her pantry (and stocking mine). Thanks to our
lovely and gracious Dana, I was pointed here to answer my canning questions...and this is where I found the ketchup recipe I was quite happy with.

Admittedly, I was a little trepedacious about pickle-making. I remember watching a Good Eats episode about the process...complete with a special pickle crock whose lid resembled a giant slice of lotus root, and days of scumming and skimming. Umm...No. For this first adventure, I just wanted something relatively low maintenance: boil, spice, pour and store. The other things was I wanted sour, crunchy dills. Mum's pickles (the ones that were good...the ones from years ago) were on the softer side and although vinegary, not really dilly. As I was bound and determined to follow instruction of someone who actually knows what they're doing, I found this recipe for
Kosher dill-style pickles after a brief poke through the canning site.

After I read through the recipe and a quick trip to the farmer's market for little pickling cucumbers and fresh dill, I set to work in her kitchen. Remember: she has all the canning equipment. My word it was easy. Really easy. So easy I thought I'd done something wrong or missed something or lost a section of the printout. But no. It really was that easy.

The hard part was letting the jars of sour, crunchy jadey goodness sit for two months.

Two whole months.

Now I have wonderful self control....Mum on the other hand needs to be reminded why she needs to stay away from the jars. Often. Like, daily.

Earlier last month we cracked the first jar open. Wow. They were sour ( I used pickling vinegar at seven per cent acidity, instead the normal vinegar that's at five per cent). They were crunchy (because I tipped and tailed the cukes) and they were dilly. I know my mum has already gone through one one-litre jar...I have a bout four pickles left in my first jar. I also know that next year, I'll have to do a double batch, probably for each of us...


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