A heart of darkness

February 28, 2009

When I saw the February Daring Baker’s challenge was to make a Chocolate Valentino cake using a recipe by Chef Wan, I was stoked since my mother’s birthday is on Valentine’s Day! What perfect luck to have a heart shaped cake as our challenge when I needed to bake something special on that day anyhow!

I used Amadei’s Tuscano 66% cocoa chocolate to make my cake and I paired it with a simple but super rich caramel sauce (see recipe below). Since one of the reasons this recipe was chosen as a DB challenge was that it used just three simple ingredients, I thought making a sauce using just three ingredients (water, sugar and cream) was the perfect accompaniment. And besides, chocolate and caramel are a match made in heaven, right?

Now, I don’t like to be a naysayer (actually, that’s not true, I do sort of like to whine and complain, just not right this second), but I have to say that I didn’t like this recipe and I won’t make it again. I made flourless chocolate cake literally hundreds of times as an apprentice to the now late (and much missed) pastry chef Andrew MacIssac. His recipe calls for 8 eggs and some sugar that is used to make a sabayon with egg yolks before they are added to the melted chocolate. The result is a cake that is simultaneously fudgier and lighter than the cake recipe we used for this month’s challenge. (If you’d like Andrew’s recipe, drop me a line and I’ll dig it out of my back up drive and send it to you).

That said, although I didn’t fall in love with this Valentine’s Day cake, I do want to thank the hosts for doing a great job! The February 2009 challenge is hosted by Wendy of WMPE’s blog and Dharm of Dad ~ Baker & Chef.

Dana’s Easy Caramel Sauce

11/2 cups (375 mL) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (125 mL) water
3/4 cup (175 mL) 35% whipping cream

Combine the sugar and water in a heavy saucepan set over high heat. Stir until sugar is dissolved. Boil sugar, brushing down sides of pan with a pastry brush dipped into water to dissolve any crystals that start to form, until the mixture is the colour of amber. Remove from heat.

Shield your hands with oven mitts or clean dish towels and whisk in the cream until the mixture quits boiling. Makes about 11/2 cups (375 mL) caramel sauce.

Tip: Add a gourmet touch by sprinkling large flake sea salt over the sauce once it has been poured over the cake.

“Open That Bottle Night”

February 27, 2009


I’ll embrace almost any reason to open up a bottle of wine. Most Friday evenings the fact that Battlestar Galactica is on is reason enough for me to pop a cork. So, when I heard that February 27th is Open That Bottle Night, I was instantly intrigued.

The event, which has taken place on the last Saturday of February for the past 10 years, is meant to prompt wine lovers to uncork the bottle that they coddled and ogled until now it’s the perfect age or just let sit and collect dust waiting for a special occasion that either didn’t come or didn’t include people who would appreciate the wine.

I love this idea since I think that in the current economic climate we all need a treat and what’s better than a treat you paid for years ago? My husband Martin has always said that wine cellars are for when you’re broke and, as you can see from the picture above, we’ve been broke many times!

Do you have a bottle in your wine cellar or liquor cabinet that you’ve been saving for special occasion? Will you open it tonight?

Bake a cake: Cranberry Bundt Cake

February 26, 2009


Reading my blog, you could get the impression that all I ever make are butter tarts, banana bread and butterscotch pudding (otherwise known around my house as the sugary trinity of B). And, truth be told, I do fall into cycles when it comes to dessert recipes. That fact admitted and duly noted, I shsould tell you that I also know how to make other yummy things, too.

Take this bundt cake for instance. It’s super moist, freezes well and needs no frosting or glaze to present well. In fact, the most difficult thing about making this cake is not eating more of it than I should!

I’ve noticed lately that many bundt cake recipes on the net and in recently printed cookbooks contain sour cream. While I like what sour cream adds to the texture of a cake like this one, I find that even with no dairy beyond butter that the recipe below is moist and yummy.

Does your favourite bundt cake recipe contain sour cream?

Lemony Cranberry Bundt Cake

1/2 cup (125 mL) dried cranberries
3/4 cup (175 mL) lemon juice
3 cups (750 mL) all-purpose flour
2 tsp (10 mL) baking powder
1/2 tsp (2 mL) salt
1 1/4 cups (310 mL) butter, softened
2 cups (500 mL) icing sugar (approx.)
4 eggs. beaten
2 tsp (10 mL) vanilla

Combine the cranberries and the lemon juice in a microwave-safe glass bowl or measure. Heat until steaming. Let stand until cool. Strain, reserving the lemon juice and cranberries separately. Butter a 10-in (25 cm) bundt/tube pan well.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Stir the flour with the baking powder and salt. Beat the butter with the sugar until fluffy. Gradually beat in the eggs, reserved lemon juice and vanilla. Add the flour, stirring until batter is almost smooth. Fold in the reserved cranberries. Scrape into the prepared pan and smooth the top.

Bake for 1 hour or until a tester inserted into the centre comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Turn out onto a rack and cool completely. Lightly dust with icing sugar before serving. Makes 16 servings.

Gourmet cupcakes cross the pond

February 25, 2009


To know that we are ga-ga for cupcakes here in Canada and the U.S., all you have to do is check my reader stats. Consistently each week, my posts about gourmet cupcakes and cupcakes in a jar are among my top read pages (it’s true!).

Well, it seems that our affection for these hand-held cakes was so infectious that it spread to the U.K. (I can only imagine that it was lurking in the ventilation system of some transatlantic airplane). According to this article, cupcakes, long viewed as a treat for kids in England, have transitioned to be a stylish grown-up indulgence featured at weddings, adult birthday parties and posh bake shops more often. Likewise, this cake love has even spread to Italy; according to this blog, Italians are in the throes of cupcake mania, too.  (Still no reports of anyone in Europe serving them at funerals in those countries but perhaps they’ll grow into that practice in time, too.)

All I can say is — what took them so long?

Topline Trends Tuesday: Flavour trends of note

February 24, 2009


Although it isn’t true that I never repeat myself (just ask my son if I’m a broken record and he’ll give you his signature eye roll in agreement -yeah, he’s at that stage), I do try to make each of these posts at least somewhat original. That said, although I’ve already discussed some of these trends here and in my latest Topline Trends newsletter, people keep asking me to list what I think the top flavour trends are right now!!! So, today I’m posting this succinct little, alphabetical list that interested folks can refer to easily:

1. Bacon: in desserts. So wrong but so good.
2. Flavoured sugars: for finishing baked goods, as a garnish and for coffee and tea.
3. Floral flavours: beyond rose and lavender, this trend is expanding to include hibiscus in desserts and cocktails.
4. Fruit in burgers: jazzing up meat patties with fruit fillings and toppings will be popular in restaurants this summer.
5. Fruits: in drinks, yumberry is emerging and acai continues to gain momentum. That said, local fruit will be king in the kitchen during harvest season.
6. Fruitwood smoke: applewood, persimmon and cherry will add subtlety to smoked meats, cheese, fish and more.
7. Greek flavours: oregano, garlic, lemon and mint will reach new gourmet heights when teamed together.
8. Miso: look for more people using miso in home cooked soups, salad dressings and marinades.
9. Pepper: from comet tail to bali long, pepper is hot for 2009.
10. Varietal citrus: meyer lemons, kaffir lime and blood orange are turning up in products and recipes at a rapid pace.

On a personal note, I’m hooked on grapefruit these days. What flavour(s) are you hooked on these days?

Last call for Mardi Gras 2009

February 23, 2009

bigassbeersbourbonstTomorrow is “Fat Tuesday,” the day that marks the culmination of Mardi Gras celebrations for 2009. At my house, that means we’ll likely have pancakes for supper (I look forward to this meal more than I should admit!) but in other places it means fists full of aspirin to recover — party time is on the roster.

While you can have a Mardi Gras party anywhere, the ultimate place to kick up your heels in North America is New Orleans, Louisiana. Last year I attended a conference there in April; it was my first time visiting NOLA and I have to say, while I loved much about the city, the famous Bourbon Street was a pretty grungy strip (doesn’t that sign I photographed say it all!?).

Will you commemorate Mardi Gras in any way? If so, how?

Regardless of whether you choose to splurge on carbs (like me) or party like L’il Wayne, I’ve got the recipe you need:

Dana’s Super Fluffy Pancakes
Vintage Sazerac Cocktails

The cheap eats debate

February 20, 2009

Yesterday I appeared on the CTV News at Noon (that’s my set just before it was rolled onto the main sound stage) to showcase how people who don’t know how to cook or who don’t feel they have the time to learn to cook and stock a usable pantry can still make dinner for four people for $10, $15, or $20.

The idea of the segment arose after I wrote in this post about whether it was possible to make a $10 dinner at all. If you check out the comments section on that post, the people who were sure that one could feed four people for $10 were mostly scratch cooks. But what about the people who never learned to cook and who have been relying on pricey prepared deli foods and restaurants? What could they do to get themselves easily started in the kitchen now that the economy might be forcing them to reconsider their mealtime habits?

As it turns out, I discovered that you could feed a family of four a full meal even if you can’t cook well. I visited the grocery store with my calculator and discovered that:

For $10 you can provide a Hamburger Helper based meal that uses a pound of ground beef, a serving of Green Giant frozen peas and a glass of milk for everyone in a family of four.
At $15 you can satisfy heartier eaters, by using the same menu served with a package of freshly baked Pillsbury Multigrain Crescent rolls.
And, for $20, you can have a fun Friday night meal that kids will think of as a treat, by making an Old El Paso Taco kit, adding some shredded cheese, lettuce and sour cream and serving each person that ubiquitous glass of milk. This meal option is way less expensive than a visit to even the most modest full-service restaurant and it includes all four food groups – unlike a delivered pepperoni and mushroom pizza that is also about $20. Plus, if you get your kids involved in preparing the ingredients and setting the table, you’ll be teaching them skills that may help them to feel confident in the kitchen when they become adults.

I got a range of email based on my TV segment. On the supportive side, I heard from Sheila Miller who wrote:

“Hi Dana!

Watched your presentation of these meals on CTV news at noon today. I live in the country, so eating out for us is not so common as it’s not so handy as when you live in town or the city. This can be a good thing, for your health as well as your pocket book.
I did want to make one comment as to the meal of tacos. I have made these for my family for years and a couple things I do that I believe add more nutrients to the meal are as follows: When the ground beef (I use lean) is almost cooked, I add two to three chopped onions and let them cook a little more with the meat. Also, instead of adding water, as the package says, I add one to two cups of tomato juice. These two items are not very costly, onions are cheap and you can usually get a can of tomato juice for $.99 or less. One other thing I tried just this week was to use plain (unsweetened) yogurt instead of sour cream…You kind of reminded me that some children don’t have the opportunity to learn to cook as their parents don’t have the skills or sometimes the time. I’m wondering if my local public school would like to have me volunteer to come in some time to teach some kids how to make a simple meal. I started cooking a meal on my own when I was around ten. I came from a large family and when I learned to peel potatoes, I thought I would never get enough peeled for the meal, it seemed to take forever. Thanks for taking time out of your busy schedule to show the meals.”

To Sheila, I say: Thanks for taking time both to watch and also to write this note. Please do approach your local school to find out if you can share your cooking skills! I think that’s a wonderful, generous idea!

Less enthusiastic was the note I got from this reader (whose name I’m not disclosing since I didn’t get her permission to print it):

“Dear Dana,

I can’t believe the meals you were advocating to moms who do not know how to cook – and meals at $10, $15, and $20, each!!!

How many families can realistically afford a $20.00 meal every day, as well as the other grocery essentials required to feed breakfast & lunches to your family and outfit your home with toilet paper and cleaning essentials – not to mention clothing, school supplies and memberships for 2 or more children???

Why don’t you recommend getting back to simple basics, instead of filling their family’s tummies with high sodium and preservatives and god-knows what other synthetic garbage that comes in the hamburger helper and taco boxes?????”

Her letter was quite long and went on to add a bunch of her own very good budget cooking tips; however, for the sake of brevity I won’t print the whole letter here (she should start her own blog with the tips – seriously!). I will respond to her emphatic (“????”) question about why I recommended cooking with convenience products such as Hamburger Helper and Green Giant frozen vegetables.

The truth is that I’d love to teach everyone to enjoy scratch cooking, but after almost 20 years as a food writer, I know that not everyone is convertible and, even those who are convertible need to start out with baby steps to build their confidence before they start buying ingredients instead of products. My hope is that by starting today with super easy meals that people can afford, that viewers will gain interest and confidence and start to become more adventurous in the kitchen in time.

What do you think? Am I out to lunch? Likewise, I’m curious about your shopping budget. How much do you spend to feed your family each day? Is $20 for a Friday night treat too much to spend to feed a family of four?