28 January 2008

Daring Bakers: Lemon Meringue Pie

I think the kitchen gawds have forsaken me...or at the very least, Zao Jun was on a coffee break when I constructed this month's challenge.

This time around, our very own Jen of The Canadian Baker challenged us to make a lemon meringue pie. What a great idea--perhaps it's the foofy meringue, but I've always viewed meringue pies with a whimsical eye. And what could be better with whimsy, but a couple of girlfriends, a hearty lunch, a pot of tea and a good old-fashioned natter?

This pie could have marked my return to kitchen pottering but, in reality, this pie tested my scullery resolve. Quite honestly, if I were a weaker sort, I'd probably have thrown in the towel and headed to the bigscarymegamart for a "home style pie." Yup this pie was as obstinate as a goat...which would have been fine if it were a chevre tart. But it wasn't.

Since I don't have a food processor, my little fingertips usually busy away, rubbing fat into flour until it feels right. Hestia must have sensed my cockiness and decided to knock me down a peg or two...by virtue of a shard of butter. A bamboo shoot-like shard of butter. A bamboo shoot-like shard of butter that rammed itself under my thumbnail, separating it from the quick.

I shrieked. I jumped. I bled....but not into the pastry.

After I washed off my digit and staunched the bleeding I returned to the pastry. It chilled well and it rolled out well. I got it into the pan in one piece.

As I pondered edge fluting, the pie plate fell off the counter and landed crust side up, disposable plate dented. Gingerly I placed the sheet of dough onto an undented plate...and I gingerly tore it. My futile attempts to fix the rip left me with an ultimatum: toss the dough or re-roll it. Quite honestly, I was short on butter so I re-rolled it, totally accepting the inevitably tough crust which would result.

After chilling it...and chilling out a bit...I blind baked it. It looked fine when I took the pie weights off and returned it to the oven. Five minutes later it ballooned like a puffer fish--I'd forgotten to dock the crust. I quickly evacuated it from mum's oven and refashioned the foil and weights. After a slightly-longer-than-called-for bake, the crust looked beautiful.

That jubilant feeling would be short-lived. Sure the cornstarch, sugar and water came together to a lovely opalescent and viscous consistency, but I was sure I was forgetting something as I stood stirring...staring at the whole lemons on the counter. Yup...standing and stirring and staring...at the lemons that should have been zested and juiced.

And there I was with my owie thumb.

Needless to say, I quickly juiced the fruit before I looked at the naked pith from the inner hulls of two lemon halves...as black as ink. Before she left for India, My Darling Little Mummy told me to use those lemons...I just didn't realise I should have used them the day after she left, instead of two weeks later. Thank goodness I brought four extra lemons...

The next day my two friends arrived for lunch. No problems, I thought. All I have to do is plop the filling into the shell, make the meringue and bake the blessed thing.

So I preheat Beelzebub.

Beelzebub does not preheat.

I fiddle with the knobs. My friends fiddle with the knobs. Nothing. We continue on for a great lunch while my disassembled pie remains in the kitchen, disassembled.

Ten minutes after one of my guests leaves, Beelzebub decides he's needed.

Quickly I pulled the meringue together. Big and frothy, white and poofy I shwooped it onto the filled crust and bunged it into Beelzebub's gaping maw. He was in fine form. Too fine. I had to pull out the pie a tad early as the shwoops threatened to turn from a honeyed brown to charcoal black.

I sliced wedges for my remaining guest and myself, serving it with some home-made blueberry coulis. My worries about the crust were unnecessary--yes, it wasn't as tender as I prefer, but it was pretty good. The luscious sunshiney filling was not too sweet and not too tart. But the meringue was exquisite--sweet and almost marshmallowy-soft with the slightest little crisp on top.

To read what the other DBs did with this challenge, take a meander through our blogroll.



22 January 2008

Be it ever so humble...

...there's no place like home.

I'm now a home-owner. Well...to be accurate, the bank owns most of my home; I think I own the powder room, spare bedroom, and linen closet.

Michael and I began to talk about living together, probably selling his condo and buying a bigger place for the two of us (and his 2000 dvds, my 2000 books, his TV temple, my piano...). So I suppose I was already in the mindset...after many ponderings on my own, with friends and with my parents, I took the plunge and purchased his condo.

I know some of you wonder if this is wise or not, but he made it a place of peace and comfort for me--a place to escape from daily stresses and turmoils. And throughout everything, his home kept those qualities. Yes, at times it is difficult being here, but it really is the best thing for me.

Well...apart from the kitchen.

Meet Beelzebub:

(the stove, not the pot)

Yes. I now live with Beelzebub. Oh sure he looks all sweet and innocent, promising to come up to temp or even just turn on, but as soon as you turn your back on him...well, it's not nice. He's either is cold as ice or his ire singes the most innocent of foodstuffs. He even kept his white cloak from the days before his fall to lull you into believing he's one of the good 'uns.

I've developed the theory that his fall from grace came out of sheer laziness. He wasn't used much in the previous nine years, pretty much replaced by the microwave, steamers, the grill thingie and toaster oven. I put him through is paces every so often--as did My Beloved One--but not often enough, apparently. But now that he's required to be...well...fully functional at a moment's notice, he's just not happy.

My father even made derisive comments about this stove. So much so that I'm given free access to their wonderful stove to feed myself and others. It will be a while until he is exorcised from my kitchen--I'm hoping for a gas stove, but I need to a) save up for a mini-reno and b) get the association's okay (in case the gas piping needs to go outside the townhouse)--but until then, I'm stuck with this fallen angel...


18 January 2008

In a jam

I've always found mindless repetition the panacea to the troubles that weight my mind. Washing dishes, polishing shoes, even alphabetising my shelves let my hands busy away, and my mind consider scenarios and reasonings, break through writer's block or even do simply nothing...to temporarily attain a much-needed respite from life's woes and stresses.

Easy and attainable therapy, I think.

A few months ago when I found myself as impotent in the kitchen as a eunuch in the Playboy Mansion, I turned to the restorative powers of automatic action. I tried favourite recipes--brownies, cakes--but the disappointing results added to my grief. It was late summer-early autumn when the markets were bursting with the last of hot season berries. Even though I could freeze them for later consumption, I felt as though I was admitting culinary defeat at a time when I should have been exploring my scullery's capabilities.

I suppose in such times it's easy to dwell on what one ought to do, as opposed to what one wants to do. This time, the ought and want melded into what became a bit of a tiger: instead of letting the last of Ontario's strawberry crop remain in their punnets for someone else more capable than I to handle, I bought the last remaining fruit and whisked them home to ponder their fates.

It had been years since I made jam or preserves of any kind. In fact the last bit of canning I did was in my last year at uni when I made some sweet and sour apple chutney as Christmas prezzies. Why on Earth I decided to get into jam-making escapes me. Perhaps it was a yearning to be part of something that was at once intimate and grand. Intimate because it happens in my kitchen with one other (in my case, Dear Little Mummy); grand because it carries both a sense of occasion (getting all the gear ready) and the knowledge that hundreds of other households also put away glinting bottles of sweet preserves.

After reviewing my books and my mother's clippings, I decided on Nigella's version for three reasons: it didn't use bought pectin; it offered the romantic potential of suspended berries visible through the jars' glass walls, and it used balsamic vinegar.

Quite honestly, I don't know how many bottles we made that weekend. Several batches, anyhow. It was easy and filled the kitchen with a heady almost candy-like aroma. Let's not overlook the decidedly therapeutic benefits of stirring and skimming.

The end results were jars filled with garnet jewels--not too sweet and nicely set. Many bottles were given as appreciation gifts to friends who helped me through these past few months, but between Mummy and I we held back about half a dozen bottles. Mine are squirrelled away and consumed carefully--sometimes on buttered toast or scones, sometimes on vanilla beaned ice cream, sometimes just on its own.

It will be months until we get such beautiful strawberries again.

Strawberry Jam
from Nigella Lawson's How To Be a Domestic Goddess

675g hulled strawberries (some can be chopped, others can be left whole)
700g sugar
2Tbsp lemon juice
1tsp balsamic vinegar

Sterilise four 200 ml jars and place a saucer in the freezer.

Put all the ingredients in a wide, heavy-bottomed saucepan and stir with a wooden spoon, until all the fruit is coated.

Put the pan on low heat and bring the berries to a boil, stirring occasionally. When it comes to a boil, let it blurble away for about eight minutes, and skim the froth off the top.

Check its set after five minutes and again every five minutes or so. To do this, put a bit of the jam on the saucer, let the jam cool a bit and give it a bit of a push with your finger. If it wrinkles and you can make a line with your finger, it's probably good to go (think of how you test custard using a wooden spoon).

Decant into sterilised jars.


14 January 2008

Milk Calendar Mondays: Roast Beef Dinner Salad

Found tucked amidst sales flyers and the colour comics, November's new Milk Calendar's arrival is a an anticipated bit of Canadiana, linking together potentially millions of families across the country. Think I'm kidding? More than 2 million were distributed in Saturday newspapers.

I remember being little, leafing through its pages from --the full-colour pictures represented "Canadian" food for me--not what I got a lot of as a youngster. My Dear Little Mummy (okay, she was My Dear Big Mummy then) rarely cooked from it. Apart from the occasional muffin or cake, the recipes went largely untried in our household.

So there it dangled on a bare nail, part art, part time keeper and reminder of bills to be paid and those already paid. Each month had a different meal or treat--everything from milkshakes and smoothies to pastas and, of course cakes and other sweets. Each beautifully photographed to entice the home cook to cook with milk and its kindred foods. At the end of the year, the calendar came down and was stored in the basement, with the other calendars.

Ashamedly, I continued Mummy's tradition of not cooking from it. Yes, I looked forward to receiving the calendar, flipping through the pages and salivating at some of the photos and recipes, but it never really crossed my mind to try the recipes. Inexplicable, really, given I'm pretty much willing to try any kitchen treat at least once.

When this year's calendar arrived, I decided to change that. Not because this year's recipes seem better than last (they don't), or because I've recently developed a hankering for dairy (that's been an ongoing craving ever since I was little, much to Mum's chagrin). I don't know what it was, but I decided this year the calendar to use as more than a record keeper of my household goings ons. So once a month...probably on a Monday, I'll post that month's recipe.

January's recipe for Roast Beef Dinner Salad is quick, satisfying, and different from the usual leftover meal. It's ludicrously simple: lettuce leaves strewn with waves of roast beef, crumbles of tangy old cheddar, juicy little tomatoes, crunchy croutons and fingers of cooked green beans, dressed in a creamy horseradish and thyme vinaigrette.

I'll probably come back to this, but change it up a bit--add sauteed mushrooms and onions and switch the horseradish and cheddar for blue cheese.

Simple, delicious and easily adaptable, this is definitely worth a try.


09 January 2008

New Year...

...new beginnings...

Hello everyone. I trust your holidays--sacred or secular--have you safe, happy and well-fed.

It's been ages since I last wrote to you. I'm not going to bore or trouble you with the intimate details of my existence as a widow without consideration these last five and a half months, except to say that although transparent meanness and opportunism still thrive, kindness, although plentiful, can still surprise you in the most unexpected places.

Over the past half-year or so I've received hundreds of messages, either in email, voicemail, cards, visits or messages on this site. Thank you all so much for your thoughts, wishes and prayers. I've also received many notes from people waiting patiently for my return. I've thought of you and this site often, but I knew I wouldn't be able to return until my life settled a bit--thank you for your patience.

I wish I could tell you that I found solace in the kitchen. Unfortunately, as many know, you can tell what my mood is by the food I cook. After a particularly bad batch of brownies, my Dear Little Mummy said "You're just too sad to cook."

To be honest, I tended to avoid the kitchen in any meaningful way. I couldn't even look at cookbooks or read any of my favourite food writers or bloggers. I couldn't even watch cooking shows (but I now have several hours of Jamie Oliver and Heston Blumenthal on the PVR).

The only thing I could make with any degree of competency was jam--pretty simple: stir, stir, stir, boil, boil, boil, stir, stir, stir and pour...and eat.

I am happy to say that my scullery, while not in full buzz, now sings more often with the happy blurblings and sizzlings that marks a proper, working home kitchen. The dish that put me back on track? Nigella's Easy Sticky Toffee Pudding (more on that later).

I don't know how things will go and I will ease back into blogging. I hope to pick up my Savour the Season series in the next few weeks and probably figure out a theme or two....but right now, I'm just pleased to be back.