I am, in fact, a Daring Baker

March 31, 2008

lemon layer cake

Although I’ve been a professional food writer for many years, writing a blog is relatively new for me. I joined the world of glogging (as the mother on Corner Gas would say) only last October. To be honest, this kind of writing is much different than writing for magazines, newspapers or books. On the one hand, it’s easier to write for a blog since you can write about any old thing without a pushy editor breathing down your neck. On the other hand, it’s difficult to write for this medium in ways that aren’t a problem with other published works. With a blog, you can tell whether people cared about what you wrote based on how many comments each post generates and how many page views your writing receives. (Although book sales also give you a barometer of popularity, it takes months to know if your book is hitting bottom or scaling the best-seller list.) It can be a bit disheartening to be a blogger on the days when fewer than expected people drop by to read or comment.

So, when I heard about an online group that was designed to help blog writers meet and interact in a virtual way, I joined. The group is called the Daring Bakers and although you don’t have to tithe your first born to the group or make any blood pacts, you do have to keep the monthly baking projects double top secret until the agreed upon publishing date.

This month the Daring Baker assignment was to bake a lemon layer cake from one of Dorie Greenspan’s books. That’s my effort above. I made it and served it to my family as our Easter dessert (also on the menu was glazed ham, roasted new potatoes and a frisee and mache salad with grapefruit dressing. It was a yummy spring feast!).

Everyone else in the DB group made the exact same recipe and you can have the fascinating experience of seeing how the appearance of their cakes differ from mine by clicking on the Daring Bakers link in the blogroll and then clicking through to their blogs. It’s amazing how each baker found a way to add his or her own creative expression to what is a very well written and specific recipe.

I’m not sure what will be on the menu for next month’s Daring Baker’s challenge, but you’ll see it here once I’ve had a chance to preheat the oven.

Daring Bakers logo
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Dana’s big gardening adventure begins

March 28, 2008

seeds.jpg

Like so many people, I’m intrigued by the idea that I can be a better earthling by making some small changes to my daily habits. As a foodie, I find the locavore movement that sees more consumers and chefs choosing ingredients based on the fewest number of miles foods have been shipped particularly inspiring.

And, like Malcolm Jolley at Gremolata, I see backyard garden plots as a logical extension of this trend. If you want to save fossil fuel use by limiting the kilometres that foods are trucked, the best thing you can do is grow them at home, right?

As some of you may recall, I was for several years the food editor for Gardening Life Magazine. In that post I developed recipes for seasonal produce and offered tips for home gardeners who were keen to grow food. Although I learned a lot writing those articles, my gardening preference as an adult has been to grow decorative rather than edible plants.

This year, I’m ‘between gardens’. We moved into a new house last summer and our home landscaping is very basic right now. In fact, until next summer when our pool, fencing and beds are complete, I have very little digging or pruning to do in my home yard.

Fortunately, my test kitchen is on a large piece of wonderful, fertile growing land with an established garden plot. Since we took the property over, our landscaper has been tilling all of the cuttings and leaves into the garden so that it is filled with wonderful organic matter and nutrients.

I’ve decided to plant a vegetable garden this spring behind the test kitchen. I’ll follow my own advice and talk to experts and see where the project takes me. So far, I’ve assembled some heritage and other seeds and made a mental plan for the garden.

My first step will be to spend this weekend planting seeds for various kinds of heritage vegetables which I’ll harden off and plant later this spring (if that ever arrives). During my big gardening adventure, I’m going to share my successes and failures here with you.

Each Friday I’ll post about what is happening in my vegetable garden and what I’ve learned. I hope that you’ll chime in with tips and advice when you see me going astray. I’m not a complete newbie but I have a lot to learn. Any help you can offer will be accepted with gratitude!


Pickle Sickles and Kool-Aid dills – two sour ideas

March 27, 2008

Pickle sickleBeing half Ukrainian, I have a deep and well-developed respect for dill pickles. In fact, I would say that I’m one of their biggest fans. But even my affection for dills has its limits and they have been tested twice in the last 24 months.

First came the Kool Aid dill. A Kool-Aid dill is what happens when you marinate a classic dill pickle in super strength strawberry Kool-Aid. You get a sticky, candy colored pickle that Mississippi kids (who comprise the fan base of this confection) call a Koolickle. I call it a sweet and sour abomination.

Koolickles are often made in a big jar and then sold by convenience store owners for $1 each. When I wrote about these pickle-flavoured confections in my Topline Trends newsletter the response was a universal yuck! Then, when I made a batch and featured them on Canada AM, the response was double yuck (I wish I could have taken a picture of Seamus’ face when he tried one on air!).

New this year is the commercial product called Pickle Sickles. Like a freezie, these snacks can be thawed and refrozen. Unlike a freezie or a Kool-Aid dill, they aren’t sweet but salty and sour. The press kit says Pickle Sickles are a healthy snack for kids and diabetics because they’re made from whole pickles, have no fat and only 1 g of sugar. I tried one as a professional duty. I have to say that even as a lover of pickles, dill pickle chips and even dill pickle juice (although only homemade dill pickle juice), these frozen snacks are nasty. They’re so salty that any nutritional advantage they have for not containing sugar is negated.

Trust me: when you want a cold, salty and sour snack: grab a fork and eat an actual pickle. You don’t need to try these new pickle creations.


Try a crispy poached egg

March 26, 2008

Poached egg

I’ve long been a fan of French bistro classic salads that crown frisee lettuce with poached eggs and a warm dressing. Needless to say, I was thrilled to try the lobster salad pictured above when I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago since it contained not only those salad elements but also lobster and lentils – two of my other favourite foods! Martin and I happened into Tableau in the Wynn Hotel around lunchtime and had a really wonderful meal. It was one of the best meals we were served in LV, to be honest.

For me the panko dusted, crispy poached egg that garnished my salad was absolutely ingenious and totally novel: light and uniformly crisp coating on the outside, creamy soft orange yolk and a firm but tender set white. It was like a crouton and an egg got married and had a salad lovin’ baby. Delish!

Although crispy poached eggs were new to me, it was only a few hours before I saw this garnish on another menu at ultra fancy Joel Robuchon. A quick Google search this morning finds these crispy little orbs of protein showing up on menus in LA (at 3 Square) and a recipe for something similar from Gourmet. I haven’t had a chance to try this technique at home yet myself but I definitely have it on my ‘to do’ list. In the meantime, I’m keeping track of how often I see crispy poached eggs (with or without panko) mentioned on menus and in recipes so that I can decide if this concept is trending up or just a blip on the food radar screen. If you’ve seen crispy poached eggs somewhere recently, please take a moment to let me know.


More about grilled cheese

March 25, 2008

Grilled cheeseI know I wrote about grilled cheese in January but here I am with these crisp, buttery examples of cheesy goodness on my mind yet again. As I mentioned in my first post, I served mini grilled cheese as one of many hors d’oeuvres at my holiday party. I also saw them served at several catered parties I attended during the festive season. Now, well into the spring season, sightings of cocktail party grilled cheese sandwiches continue: triangular grilled cheeses (really a little too big to be considered canapés) were served at the wonderful Queen Street Unmasked party held at the Drake Hotel to raise money and awareness for mental health prevention and treatment. Then, at Terroir II Symposium, the grilled cheese lollies pictured above were on offer by the chefs from C5. So cute and really yummy!

Isn’t it interesting that as much as full-sized grilled cheese are still a wonderful choice for lunches and dinners, they seem to be taking over for mini quiche and spanikopita as the ubiquitous hot, cheesy hors d’ouevres of choice?


Gin and Tonic revisited

March 24, 2008

Gin and tonic

One of my first experiences with drinking alcohol involved gin poured into a Sprite bottle so that it could be consumed incognito. I won’t tell you how old I was or where this undercover ‘Sprite’ was consumed (those details will only make people question the quality of the parenting I received and that wouldn’t be fair. My parents were actually pretty good at their job. It was me who wasn’t good at following rules).

But I digress…. this post is not about how I squandered my youth and in the process came to loathe gin, but about how I rediscovered gin now that I am a sensible adult. My cocktail mentor Len Fragomeni, owner and chief mixologist at the Toronto Institute of Bartending (BTW, if you have to be institutionalized, this is the best place I’ve found to be incarcerated) and I worked on a project last year to promote Bloody Caesar cocktails. While I created food to go with Caesars, Len focused on reinterpreting this classic Canadian drink in new and interesting ways. One of his drink creations was gin based and, as the weeks went by and I learned more about gin from Len, I was lured to try this juniper-scented spirit anew.

The rest of the story is rather predictable. Gin and I flirted for a few weeks, which led to a sip here, a sniff there. Then, one day gin and I found ourselves running toward one another in slow motion only to meet and fall into one another’s arms in a passionate embrace. (Oh wait a second, that wasn’t gin and I at all. That was the end of the Hallmark movie of the week, which I watched on PBS while drinking gin).

Regardless of how it happened, I am now a Gin and Tonic drinker. Although I joked about its effects above, I find I need only one gin and tonic to feel satisfied. I’m also fussy about the gin. I’ve fallen for Hendricks gin; it has subtle cucumber and rose flavors that make it a fresh, palate bracing choice. I use a double old-fashioned glass filled almost all the way up with ice for my G&T (that’s what aficionados like me call them). Try one after dinner while you watch Jeopardy. I’ll toast you during the first commercial break.


Good Friday

March 21, 2008

I hope everyone has a happy Easter full of good food and family, and I’ll be back bright and early Monday morning. See you then!