Cool Yule, volume 2

December 2, 2009

Struggling with gift ideas for the cooks on your list? Here are two great ideas — one a bit extravagant and one less expensive -– that are sure to make the grade and not likely to be in their cupboards already:

‘I like you!” gift idea: Cupcake pens can be used to decorate all kinds of baked goods whether you’ve got artistic flair or two hands worth of thumbs.

“I love you!” gift idea: Yogurt makers aren’t just for people who wear sandals and socks (They used to be but things have changed now – I checked.) and this one is the Mac daddy of them all offering flexible timing options and the ability to make up to 8 flavours at a time! Seriously, 8 flavours.

If you’re an avid cook, what’s on your wish list this holiday season?


November 18, 2009

Peanut ButterI’ve always thought of myself as an open minded person but obviously, the rest of the world doesn’t see me that way.  Somehow, I’ve become known as as judgemental. In the last month I’ve been asked to judge everything from cookies and cooking to beer pouring.

First I participated as a judge along with Elizabeth Baird and Stephanie Pick at the Gay Lea Shortbread Contest. The winning recipe was not only delicious but technically interesting as well. (The recipe is below if you’d like to try it.)

Then, I was off to New York to be a judge at the international Stella Artois Draught Master challenge where the world’s best draftmaster was crowned. And, lastly I joined the chefs from the Delta Grandview Hotel as a judge in an Iron Chef style competition between 8 teams of Kraft employees.

I’m both full and exhausted! Seriously, it’s much harder work to judge other people than I anticipated. It’s been a true test of my attention span.

Fortunately, the next contest that I’m involved with requires me to be a host and not a judge. On January 22nd, I’ll preside over the first ever Canadian Pillsbury Baking Challenge ! There’s still time to vote on your favourite recipes so make sure you visit the contest website to find out more details!

Have you ever entered a food or beverage competition? If so, was it fun or frightening?

Peanut Butter and Jelly Shortbread Bars

1 cup unsalted Gay Lea Butter, softened 250 mL
1 cup granulated sugar 250 mL
1 egg yolk 1
1/2 tsp vanilla extract (optional) 2 mL
2 cups all purpose flour 500 mL
1 tsp baking powder 5 mL
1/4 tsp salt 1 mL

3/4 cup blueberry jam 175 mL
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter 125 mL
1/2 cup icing sugar 125 mL
2 tbsp unsalted Gay Lea Butter, softened 30 mL


In a large bowl, beat the butter with the sugar and egg yolk, using an electric mixer, for 2 minutes or until light and fluffy. In a separate bowl blend together flour, baking powder and salt until well combined.

Divide the dough into two equal portions and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Refrigerate dough for 1 to 4 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C). Line a 9 x 13-inch (3 L) baking dish with parchment paper; reserve. Remove dough from fridge. Shred dough using a coarse grater or food processor, fitted with a metal shredding blade; replace one portion of shredded dough to the fridge.

Arrange remaining dough in an even layer in the prepared baking dish; lightly pat the dough down. Bake for 20 minutes or until lightly golden around the edges; cool for 20 minutes.

Meanwhile, blend the jam with the icing sugar and butter until smooth and well combined. Spread the peanut butter over the shortbread base in an even layer. Drop spoonfuls of the jam mixture over the peanut butter and gently spread in an even layer.

Remove the remaining dough from the freezer and scatter over the jam layer. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the top is set and lightly golden brown. Transfer pan to a wire rack and cool completely; cut into bars.

Makes 24 bars.

Tip: Try grape jelly or strawberry jam in place of the blueberry jam for a fun twist.

I could go for a ginger cookie…

November 6, 2009


If you read yesterday, you know that I’m taking the easy way out to end the week by recycling some of my favourite cold weather comfort food posts.

On the list today are recipes from my sweet kitchen:
Microwave butterscotch pudding
Tarte Tatin
Super crisp ginger cookies
Butter Tarts

What sweet treat epitomizes warming comfort for you? Again, feel free to link to your site or recipes that we can all bookmark for a day when we need an indulgence.

RIP Soupy Sales

October 26, 2009


Good ole Soupy Sales. What a life he lived! He almost single handedly supported the cream pie industry. By the comics own count he was hit in the face with at least 20,000 pies – almost all of them filled with creamy, custardy goodness.

Friday night, driving to the Chocolate Ball, I heard an archive interview between Soupy and the late, great Canadian journalist Barbara Frum where Soupy admitted that there was, even for him, always a moment of pure humiliation when you’re hit in the face with pie.

Inspiring words that had me making a mental list of the people I’d like to hit in the face with pies…

  1. Lady Gaga who is so over played on Toronto radio stations that I want to scream. (Seriously. If I hear that crappy Papparazi song one more time, I’ll start whipping cream and rolling out pastry!)
  2. The dude too busy talking on his phone while he drove to take a moment to wave when I totally went out of my way to let him in on Saturday.
  3. Every air-duct cleaning company owner that calls me – despite being on the do not call list – while I’m watching Jeopardy! or eating my dinner. (For them, I’ll use salt instead of sugar in the pie since I really want them to suffer.)

I’m sure there are more but I don’t really want to dig too deep into my bitterness reserve. Soupy likely wouldn’t approve. He was a man who devoted his life to making people laugh after all.

But, I will ask you these questions before I sign off for today:  have you ever been hit in the face with a pie?  If so, what was it like?  And, if you could wallop someone with a cream topped pastry crust, who would it be?

The right stuff

September 21, 2009

Monday apple

Welcome to apple week! I don’t usually write about one topic five days in a row, but I’m making an exception for this wonderful fruit – after all, who doesn’t like apples? Seriously, after all the debate caused by Friday’s post, I’m looking for a bit of consensus building!  So, let’s see if we can all agree that apples are delicious and share our tips, recipes and stories. Enjoy!

Of the seven thousand plus known and catalogued apple species, only a couple of dozen are well known, widely cultivated and sold in significant numbers in Canada. And, of this small number of apples, only a handful has the right texture and consistency to be good for use in recipes. Although many people define a cooking apple as one that’s used primarily for cooking rather than eating fresh, many of my favourite cooking apples are also my favourite eating apples. For instance, I treat apples such as the Granny Smith, Cortland, Spartan and McIntosh as dual purpose fruits.

In a nutshell, by my definitions, an apple qualifies as good for cooking if it has a tangy flavour and a firm flesh that softens but doesn’t break down too much when cooked. For applesauce and apple butter, I have another category that I call sauce apples; apples in this category have great flavour and cook down to a pulpy consistency.

To ensure that you have the right apple for the right usage, simply cut a wedge of apple and place it in a small saucepan. Cover the fruit with water and simmer it until the apple is tender. If the piece stays intact when pierced with a fork and still has a true, desirable apple flavour, then it’s good for skillet cooking and apple desserts where firm pieces of apple are desirable. Use this chart to help you to choose the best apples I’ve found for each type of culinary use:

Good for cakes, pies, crisps, skillet cooking Good for baking whole Good for sauces
Northern spy Granny Smith Empire
Idared Jonagold McIntosh
Granny Smith Northern spy Royal gala
Spartan Mutsu/Crispin Greenstein
Cortland Cortland

To a good new year

September 16, 2009

New Year's Honey Cake

September always feels like the real beginning of the year for me. Oliver heads back to school, work gets busier after the lull of the summer and Martin jumps into action at Pangaea with the Toronto International Film Festival. In fact, the kinetic pace that doesn’t really stop until the last New Year’s Eve revelers leave Martin’s restaurant, catch a cab and head home.

That’s why I love the idea of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish celebration of their calendar’s new year. Although I’m not Jewish, I have many very close friends who do practice that faith and who will be observing Rosh Hashanah at the end of the week. So in their honour, I’m featuring a recipe from Marcy Goldman’s wonderful new book A Treasury of Jewish Holiday Baking. In her header notes, Marcy notes that this cake can be made several days ahead and just gets moister and more delicious as it sits, so why not make it tonight for the weekend?

Marcy Goldman’s Majestic & Moist New Year’s Honey Cake
(excerpted with permission)

3 1⁄2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1⁄2 teaspoon salt
4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1⁄2 teaspoon ground cloves
1⁄2 teaspoon ground allspice
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup honey
11⁄2 cups white sugar
1⁄2 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup warm coffee or strong tea
1⁄2 cup fresh orange juice
1⁄4 cup rye or whisky (see note below)
1⁄2 cup slivered or sliced almonds (optional)

I like this cake best baked in a 9-inch angel food cake pan, but you can also make it in a 10-inch tube or Bundt cake pan, a 9- by 13-inch sheet pan, or three 8-by 41⁄2-inch loaf pans.

Preheat the oven to 350°F. Lightly grease the pan(s). For tube and angel food pans, line the bottom with lightly greased parchment paper. For gift honey cakes, I use “cake collars” (available from Sweet Celebrations) designed to fit a specific loaf pan. These give the cakes an appealing, professional, look.

In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices. Make a well in the center and add the oil, honey, sugars, eggs, vanilla, coffee, orange juice, and rye or whisky.

Using a strong wire whisk or an electric mixer on slow speed, combine the ingredients well to make a thick batter, making sure that no ingredients are stuck to the bottom of the bowl.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan(s) and sprinkle the top of the
cake(s) evenly with the almonds. Place the cake pan(s) on 2 baking sheets stacked together and bake until the cake springs back when you touch it gently in the center. For angel and tube cake pans, bake for 60 to 70 minutes; loaf cakes, 45 to 55 minutes. For sheet-style cakes, the baking time is 40 to 45 minutes. This is a liquidy batter and, depending on your oven, it may need extra time. Cake should spring back when gently pressed. Let the cake stand for 15 minutes
before removing it from the pan. Then invert it onto a wire rack to cool completely.

NOTE: If you prefer not to use the whisky, replace it with orange juice or coffee.

Grape expectations

September 4, 2009


Does everyone have food memories that take them back to their childhood? Probably. I know I have many.

At this time of the year, popping a semi-seedless Ontario Coronation grape on my tongue and feeling that burst of juicy goodness takes me right back to age 11 when my family lived in a house whose former owners had valued self-sufficiency very highly. Our standard-issue suburban yard was crammed full of wonderful fruit-bearing plants: damson plums, peaches, apples and pears grew in our backyard. All around the house, positioned above the lower storey windows like living awnings, were full, glorious grape vines whose leaves shaded the house all summer.  I fondly remember, as an 11-year-old, teetering on my desk chair to open the window, sliding back the screen and picking a bouquet of blue-black grapes to eat before settling down to memorize my first list of spelling words for the school year.

Coronation and the other Ontario blue grape variety, Fredonia, are only available from mid-August to late September, so this is the perfect weekend to pick up a basket if you don’t have a grape vine growing over your bedroom window.

During the rest of the year, most commercially-available table grapes sold in Canada are imported from places like California. You can easily distinguish native blue table grapes from other table grapes by examining their size and skin. Imported table grapes are considerably larger than the blue grapes Canadian home gardeners can grow and they have skins that cling to the flesh of the fruit. Canadian-grown blue grapes, on the other hand, are each about the size of a small marble, cluster in tight bunches on the vine and feature ‘slip’ skins that can easily be removed from the fruit.

These wonderful little grapes are still a favourite of mine to eat out of hand, but I also like to add them to salads and use them in this once-a-year focaccia recipe:

Coronation Focaccia

1 envelope fast-acting dry yeast
2 1/2 cups (625 mL) bread or all-purpose flour (approx)
1/2 tsp (2 mL)  salt
3/4 cup (175 mL) very warm water
1 tbsp (15 mL) lemon juice
1 tbsp (15 mL) liquid honey
1/4 cup (50 mL)  melted butter
2 cups (500 mL) Ontario blue grapes, halved and seeded if necessary
1/3 cup (75 mL) muscovado or granulated sugar

1. Stir yeast with flour and salt and reserve. Stir water with lemon juice, honey and melted butter in a large bowl. Stir in half the flour mixture and blend well. Stir in remaining flour mixture and turn out onto the counter. Knead for 5 minutes or until smooth and elastic,  adding up to 1/2 cup (125 mL) extra flour if necessary. Place in a lightly buttered bowl and cover with plastic wrap. Rest for 10 minutes.

2. Turn dough out of bowl and press out all the air. Roll dough into a large rectangle. Scatter half the grapes over dough and sprinkle with half the sugar. Brush around the edge of the dough with a little water and fold dough like a letter to make a rectangle. Crimp the edges of the dough to seal. Sprinkle with remaining grapes, turning skin side up and pressing gently into dough. Sprinkle with sugar. Transfer to a parchment paper-lined baking sheet.

3. Tent bread with plastic wrap and let rise for 1 hour. Preheat oven to 400F (200C). Bake focaccia on middle rack for 25 to 30 minutes or until well browned. Immediately loosen bread with a spatula from pan (it will be saucy on the bottom) and slide onto a rack to cool. Makes 1 loaf.