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On a caramelly note…

After careful thought, it seems that there are two camps in the kitchen—those who stir for the joy of it and those who prefer to leave simmering pots alone. There may be other sub-categories and side groups, but it seems that most people who join you in the kitchen will usually quickly announce their preference for stirring, if that is the case. My sister falls into this group. From an early age, our kitchen collaborations were usually begun with a “What can I stir?” from her. Initially, I did have my doubts, concerned that her willingness to stir was overshining her willingness to help with other prep tasks. But it doesn’t take long to see the balance that these two styles bring to the kitchen.

For me, I’d rather leave the pots alone, cooking things that can stand up to a little caramelization or simmer time on their own. This leaves me free to move from one project to the next. So when it comes down to some serious cooking, a combination of kitchen personalities seems to work best. And when the cooking project at hand is a few pounds of caramel, that stirring part becomes all the more important.

Caramel, and homemade candy of all sorts, really, have been somewhat of a mystery to me. Caramel is one of those ubiquitous flavors but it wasn’t really on our holiday treat tray growing up. Baked treats were most often our thing, so the sugary world of cooking caramel, brittle and fudge have all been new to me. I’ve lost many a pound of butter and sugar with my attempts to master science of candy making. Maybe it all comes down to the stirring, but I’m still trying. So when the December issue of Martha Stewart’s Living arrived, featuring caramel with tasty variations, I knew I would need help.

If making caramel can be described as any one task, it would have to be stirring. The ingredient list is not long—add everything into the pot, stir until it reaches a caramelly color (Martha was a bit more precise), then pour it onto a pan and wait. What happens in-between is about 40 minutes of stirring. OK, that might be an exaggeration or due to the fact that there was actually a double batch in progress, either way, whew! My weekend adventures included four kinds of caramel and a whole lot of stirring. Thank goodness for friends with an appreciation for stirring!

No recipe this time, friends. I’m just going to go with Martha on this one—check out her detailed directions and flavor combinations in the December issue of Living. And while they outlined a few delicious flavor combinations, I think the idea of an Earl Grey variety, or something nutty with rosemary would be worth a little experimentation with future batches! And if you’re still trying to come up with some treats to share with friends and family, I can’t help but believe a little box of marshmallows and caramel would make people very happy.  Or, if you want to share a little more caramelly goodness, pour the caramel into a pan and give both as a gift, wrapped up in a bit of baker’s twine.

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Pine cone cookies

In my world there are two thing that get me into a holiday state of mind: decorating the Christmas tree and baking holiday cookies. Let’s be honest, there really isn’t anything better than sitting beside a softly lit Christmas tree eating sweets and trying to guess what is in all of the gifts. I am rather new to having my own tree. I have only done it three times now and each time has been a bit of a learning experience. The first year I set up the tree on Remembrance Day, November 11th was a little early as it turns out. So the next year I waited until the second week on December, that was too late! This year the tree went up one week before December 1st. I think that we might be onto something with this tree schedule. As you may have guessed there is a fake tree in my house, apparently apartment buildings think that real trees are a hazard. Which I guess could be true if there are other fools like me out there putting their trees up in mid November.

When it comes to Christmas baking there are two main types of baking: the tried and true classics and the new and fantastic looking. Like Ginger, I too like to have cookies around for the month of December. This year holiday baking was kicked off with an old favorite. These treats have been on our families cookie plate for basically as long as I can remember. Kind of like the holiday jello salad, they might not be the most elegant or modern cookie but then again you don’t mess with tradition. These noodle cookie or pine cone cookies as my nephew likes to calls them are a snap to make. They don’t require baking, so they are an ideal family baking project.

Pine cone Cookies

12 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
12 ounces butterscotch chips
1 (16-ounce) Chinese noodles
1 cup Salted Peanuts
Fleur de Sel for garnish

In a double boiler combine both of the chips and melt. Once the chips are melted stir in peanuts and noodles. Adding the noodles in batches to ensure that no noodle is left uncovered. You can really play this part by ear, so to speak, adding noodles until you reach your desired consistency.

Drop heaping tablespoons of batter onto a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper or parchment paper. Sprinkle each cookie with a little salt and refrigerate until set, about 20 minutes. Enjoy!

 

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Get your sparkle on

The holidays always make me think of traditions—the ones that have gone on for years in my family and the ones that I am trying to create for my own little family. And despite the short, dark days of winter, there is something comforting about those holiday traditions that make this time of year most special.

Now that December is here, it seems like the right time to start with a little Christmas baking. Holiday baking has always been a big part of our holiday celebrations through the years. We each have our favorite sweets that appear on the holiday treat tray year after year. But with busy schedules, a massive amount of baking just seems a little too daunting. So over the past few years, I’ve come up with a different approach—weekend baking. I have plenty of time to get something baked and we get to enjoy and share treats all month long. We might not have all of our treats on the tray together, but I think it works out OK in the end. And with a little helper in the kitchen, this special baking time has just gotten a whole lot more exciting. Every weekend, he asks whether we are going to do any baking. I like to comply!

Since baking with a toddler can be a little challenging, er, exciting, I’ve been thinking about what recipes might be best for him to help with. He likes to be hands-on, helping to measure and pour. I thought about gingerbread cookies with shapes to cut out and decorate. I knew that glitter and sprinkles would be right up his alley. But it seems like there are so many steps in that process, baking and then decorating later. It would be too much for his attention span to bear. So when I found this recipe, it seemed to combine the best of all activities in a short amount of time! Decorating before baking? Yes, please!

These cookies remind me a little of biscotti in that they are twice-baked for extra crunch. It also means that fiddling around with the dough to make them perfect is just not needed—great for helpers. Some variety will make for a nice display in the end. They are a perfect addition to any tray of treats and are sure to be a hit with everything from coffee to cocktails.

A few notes before you get started: This recipes calls for cayenne pepper. It makes the cookies spicy in a very good way. My little guy is OK with the amount in the recipe, but adjust to your tastes.  The sugars and sparkles used on these cookies really set a festive tone. Play around to find favorite combinations. Ours was the vanilla sugar—while not the most festive colors, the flavors were lovely.

Spicy Gingerbread Straws

From Nancy Baggett’s recipe in Better Homes and Gardens, December 2012

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cayenne pepper (optional)
1/3 cup unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1/3 cup molasses (not blackstrap)
1/4 coffee, cooled, or 1/4 water with 1 teaspoon instant coffee

Course sugar or turbinado sugar
Sprinkles or edible glitter

Preheat oven to 350º and position rack in the middle of the oven.

In a large bowl, mix flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, ginger, salt, cloves, allspice and cayenne pepper, if using. Mash the brown sugar so there are no lumps are left.

In a small bowl, combine the butter, molasses and coffee and whisk to combine. Pour the butter mixture into the flour and stir well to combine. Knead briefly to mix in all of the flour and make a smooth dough. If the dough is too dry to roll out, add a few drops of water as you kneed. If it is too moist, sprinkle in a little more flour. Divide the dough in half and form roughly into a log.

Place the dough between two sheets of parchment paper and roll into a rectangle, about 6 by 12 inches. Trim the dough if needed, but don’t worry about making a perfect rectangle. Remove the top layer of parchment paper and sprinkle with your choice of sugar and glitter. I used about 2 tablespoons of sugar and 1 tablespoon of sprinkles. Place the parchment paper back on top of the dough and press the sugar gently into the dough. Remove the top layer of parchment.

Use a large knife or a pizza cutter to cut the dough into thin strips, about 1/4-inch by 6 inches wide. Slide the sliced rectangle of dough, still on the parchment paper, onto a baking sheet.

Place the baking sheet in the middle of the oven and bake for about 14 minutes, or until edges are slightly browned and the cookies are just barely firm when pressed. Using the parchment paper, slide the dough onto a cutting board and retrace the cuts between the cookies and separate them a little on the pan. Repeat with the remaining half of the dough.

Once both sheets are baked and trimmed, reduce oven heat to 200º and place both trays back in the over for 10 to 12 more minutes. Remove from oven and place cookies on a wire rack to cook completely. Store in an airtight contained to help them stay crisp.

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I did it!

I am pretty sure that I am not cut out to be a chef, you see, at heart I am just a recipe follower. Perhaps I need the structure a recipe provides, that bit of guidance that lets you know you are on the right track. I am however, pretty good at modifying recipes so maybe all hope is not lost. But branching out and making something up, that I can not do. Or perhaps I should say haven’t done. Likely because I’m too scared of failing. This however is the type of cooking that I would love to be able to do. As well as finishing reading the five half finished books that I have stacked up on  my night stand, this fall I have also decided to challenge myself to create an original recipe.

As a kid we didn’t grow up having pie all together that often, my mom wasn’t much for making pies. I recall tackling the Thanksgiving pumpkin pie one particular time, while Ginger prepared the rest of the dinner and surprisingly enough, I always remember getting rave reviews. This may just be a figment of my imagination, but who’s to say really. So for my original recipe creation I have decided to play to my strengths and make a pie.

This recipe brings together a few of my very favourite things: fragrant and juicy pears, tangy lemon and a hint of the fresh-cut wood and rosemary flavour of lavender. I tested this recipe out a few times, once with the pear peels on and once with them off. I personally like the peel on, I think it helped to bring out a little more pear flavour. However you choose to do it I think that you will enjoy the lovely mending of flavours. Fanfare please!

Pear Pie Scented with Lavender & Lemon

For the crust:  Adapted from Bon Appetit
1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1/4 teaspoon Fleur de sel (heaping)
1/2 cup chilled unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
3 – 4 tablespoons ice water

For the filling:
4 – 5 pears cored, halved and sliced thinly (the peels can left on or off)
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon dried food grade lavender
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 lemon juiced

Directions
I always make my pies crust by hand, I’m hardcore that way/I don’t have a food processor. If you want to be hardcore too, make sure that you have all your ingredients on hand and measured out before you start working with the butter. The less time you spend working with your butter the flakier your crust.

Combine flour, sugar, and salt in a medium mixing bowl. Add butter to the mix and blend using a pastry cutter or your hands until a coarse meal forms. Slowly blend in just enough ice water to form the dough into a crumbly ball. Flatten the ball into a disk, wrap in plastic wrap and chill for 2 hours.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Place the sliced pears in a large mixing bowl. Sprinkle the flour, sugar, lavender, lemon zest and juice over the pears. Lightly toss the pear mixture until evenly coated.

Removed the chilled dough and place it on a well-floured working surface. Using a rolling pin,  roll-out the dough to about 1/4 inch thick. Roll the dough up around your rolling pin and carefully transfer it to a 9-inch pie dish. Gently settle the dough into the dish.

Pour the filling and all of its juices into the dough-lined pie dish. Roughly fold the edges of the crust up over the filling forming a rustic crust.

Bake the pie for 55 minutes, until the pie crust develops a deep golden color and the pear juices are bubbling.

Place the pie on a rack and allow the pie to cool. Cut into slices and serve with whipped cream.

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Patience…

Patience is a virtue that I do not have when all things baking are concerned.

Thru the years there seems to be one, maybe two things that I keep being told but some how do not learn. One, always read the recipe from start to finish before you start making it and secondly, be patient and follow the directions. For one reason or another I have had a really hard time coming to terms with these basic principles. And there have been numerous times when I have frantically texted Ginger shortly before midnight in a major panic because I just realized that the recipe called for 2 hours of chilling time before baking and I just didn’t have the luxury of time. Of course at this point Ginger always graciously asks “Did you not read the recipe before you started to make it?”

This is basically how the scenario played out with the apricot tart. As per usual I had signed myself up for to many evening activities, I was tired from… well a gruelling Monday in the office and of course I had some baking to do.

Over the weekend we were lucky enough to have my parents visiting. It was a late birthday celebration for me and when they come up from the Okanagan for my birthday they always bring me fruit. Okanagan fruit always seem to taste better to me. This weekend they arrived with a bunch of freshly pick cherries and a box of apricots. So it seem appropriate to do a little something with apricots this week.

Now I will admit that when I first started thinking about baking with apricots, a tart was the first thing that came to mind. Tarts are always so lovely with their even rows of fruit and I wanted that! I should have know better, I don’t have the patience for it. All the same, I embarked on my apricot tart using a recipe that I came across on Orangette.

Now I did make a few of my own adaptations here, I didn’t have a tart pan so I had to make do with one of my other pans and when I pictured my tart in my mind, the tart featured halved apricots. So I ran with that notion. That is until I got to the point in the recipe where it stated that the crust needed to chill for at least 2 hours! How do I always do this to myself?

 

Not one to be shut down by these sorts of complications, I forged ahead. Briefly chilling the dough while I prepped up the fruit, rolled it and shaped it into a “rustic” tart. Honestly, rustic is a kind way to put it. And after a solid 50 minutes of baking my rustic tart was finished! The tart was still lovely even without all the chilling. That is likely the reason why I will never learn to read the recipe before I start baking. Some how, things always still seem to turn out.

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CAKE!

What can you make with eggs, milk, sugar, flour, vanilla and nutmeg. Why a Boston Cream Pie of course!

With the much anticipated summer finally here, it may seem like a fruit dessert of some sort would be the natural choice for a dessert but no, I had to make something else. Something light, chocolatey, custardy and all around yummy. To be honest this Boston Cream Pie, which is basically a Boston Cream donut turned into a layer cake, has been on my radar since I first laid eyes on it in the Volume No 6 of Canal House Cooking. Lucky for me when Scott’s birthday came around this year it seemed like the perfect cake fit for the guy who loves himself a good Boston Cream donut. It did not fail to delight.

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A grape cake

To tell you the truth, I don’t really care for grapes. In fact, I’d probably say that I eat more raisins than fresh grapes. I have no good reason to feel this way but I’m just saying they are not a staple around here.

Just the sheer scarcity of grapes in my fridge should have made this recipe a no-go from the beginning for me. But when I saw it a few months back in my copy of Martha Stewart’s Living, I marked it and set it aside. It looked simple and elegant – sometimes you need a cake like that.

Skimming through the growing stack of magazines recently, I came upon it once again. And with company in the house and an upcoming trip to the grocery store, the timing seemed right. I questioned my decision when I saw that the recipe called for toasted, ground almonds – how often do you have those sitting around? But what else was I going to do with those grapes?

Of course, I don’t want you to be put off by this recipe either. While the toasted almonds are a tasty addition, you really don’t have to toast them if you are pressed for time.  And unless you can buy ground almonds, a food processor or blender would be handy to have. But otherwise, this recipe is a breeze. It’s quick and delicious and doesn’t require fancy icing or layers to impress anyone. Pull it out of the oven to simply finish off a meal, or pack thick slices in paper for a spring picnic.

It seems that I am all about the citrus zest these days. It’s been showing up in baked goods as well as sandwich spreads. And this cake is no exception. You’d think that a cake enriched with olive oil and studded with grapes would be enough. But once you add a few teaspoons of lemon zest, it just comes alive. Don’t skimp, just keep on zesting!

Grape Cake

Adapted from Martha Stewart

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for pan
1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for pan
1/2 cup finely ground toasted almonds
1/4 cup quick-cooking polenta or coarsely ground yellow cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
1/3 cup whole milk
2 cups red or black seedless grapes, rinsed well

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Brush an 8-inch square pan with olive oil, dust with flour and tap out anything that doesn’t stick. Mix together flour, ground almonds, polenta, baking powder and salt.

Beat eggs, sugar and lemon zest in a mixer on high speed until pale and fluffy, about two minutes. Reduce speed to low and slowly add olive oil. Beat in flour mixture in three additions, alternating with milk, beginning and ending with flour.

Scrape batter into the prepared pan. Scatter 1 cup of grapes over top of the batter. Don’t forget the corners! Bake for 15 minutes. Place remaining 1 cup grapes over cake. Bake until cake is golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean,  about 25 to 30 minutes more. Let cake cool in pan on a wire rack for 15 minutes. Turn out onto a plate and cut into squares.

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Ultimate sticky buns

The Bon Appetit covers keep getting me, and April’s Ultimate Sticky Buns were no exception. In fact, I was so excited about making them, I asked Tina to join me in our own attempt to duplicate their amazing results! And I’ve got to say, these are pretty delicious treats. Don’t delay!

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Cooked it!

I Cooked the Cover of Bon Appetit’s April issue. This months cover featured The Ultimate Sticky Bun! And by ultimate I think they meant not only the ultimate in taste but also in kitchen disaster bombs, I had a bit of a mess to clean up afterwards.

I bet you wish you were at my house for breakfast yesterday morning.

 

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Hot crossed

My forays into bread baking started at a young age. Standard production of many loaves of hearty whole grain bread were a weekly occurrence in my childhood. I still fondly recall thick slabs of bread, freshly out of the oven, melting with butter and perhaps dripping a little honey off the corners. At some point along the way, my days of quietly standing by turned into active participation. I’ve been baking something ever since.

One of my first official cookbooks had to have been Baking Bread by Beth Hensperger. While I can’t say that I baked every recipe in the book, I have come mighty close. I started out with the European country breads, moving on through the American breads and settling quite happily into the sweet and celebration breads sections. There was even a picnic section! And even as a high school student, I was planning my weekends around various starters and sponges called for in these recipes. I know, this is saying something about my high school years!

It took awhile, but eventually I found my way to the recipe for hot cross buns. Filled with currants, apricots and citrusy goodness, these fragrant rolls stand out from the crowd. But let’s be honest here – the real standout component to these rolls has to be the icing. It’s true, when you think about hot cross buns, icing is not the first thing that springs to mind. But once you taste these, I think you might at least reconsider.

For me, hot cross buns are not a specific Easter requirement, but more of a spring treat. And that is likely why I try to make a few batches of this recipe before Easter passes me by. But, since we have a little more spring still to come, I hope you’ll find a time to try out this recipe.

Hot Cross Buns with Dried Fruit

Adapted from Beth Hensperger’s book, Baking Bread

It is worth noting that this recipe is nothing short of amazing with Meyer lemons. The season seems to be winding down, but if you can find just one lemon, I think you’ll see what I mean. 

1 cup dried currents
1/2 cup chopped dried apricots
1 tablespoon (1 package) active dry yeast
A pinch of sugar
3/4 cup warm water (105° to 115° F)
1 cup warm milk (105° to 115° F)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup sugar
3 1/2 to 4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Sugar Glaze
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup water

Lemon Icing
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest, be more generous if you wish
2 tablespoons lemon juice

Place the dried currants and chopped apricots in a small bowl. Cover with boiling water and let stand for 15 minutes. Drain thoroughly.

In a small bowl, sprinkle the yeast and sugar over the warm water. Stir to dissolve and let stand until foamy, about 10 minutes.

Using an electric mixer bowl, or a large bowl, combine the milk, butter, sugar, eggs about 1 cup of the flour. Mix for 1 minute to combine. Add the yeast mixture, dried fruits, spice, vanilla and 1 cup more flour. Beat hard for 1 minute or until well combined. Add the remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time until a soft dough forms that clears the sides of the bowl. As with any dough, the flour proportions will vary a little, but go sparingly with the additions to keep the dough moist.

Continue to knead, by hand or in a mixer, until the dough is soft and smooth. Push any dried fruit back into the dough if bits fall out. Continue to add flour, if needed, 1 tablespoon at a time. Place the dough in a large greased bowl and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm spot until the dough has doubled, anywhere from 1 to 1 1/2 hours.

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and divide it into two equal portions. Roll the dough into a 10-inch-long log. Depending on the size rolls you want, cut each log into sections of 9 or 10 pieces. Form each piece into a round bun and place on a parchment-lined baking sheet to rise. Leave about 1 1/2 inches between each roll. Leave uncovered and let rise at room temperature for about 30 minutes, or until roughly doubled in size. While the rolls are rising, preheat the oven to 375º. Once the oven is heated, use a sharp knife to cut an “x” into the top of each roll, taking care not to cut much deeper than 1/2 inch.

Bake in the center of the oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the rolls are golden brown. You can flip the roll over to check for doneness as well – the bottom should be nicely browned.

While the rolls are baking, prepare the glaze. Combine the sugar and water in a small pan and allow to boil, uncovered, for 5 minutes. Set aside.

Once done, remove the rolls from the oven and arrange on a wire rack. Use a pastry brush to coat with the sugar glaze. While the rolls continue to cool, prepare the lemon icing. In a small bowl, combine the powdered sugar, lemon juice and zest. Beat with a whisk until smooth. The icing will be a bit firm, but this will help with the piping. Place the icing in a small plastic bag and snip a tiny hole in one corner. Pipe the icing into the “x” in the top of each roll. Let the rolls stand for at least 20 minutes for the icing to set.

These rolls are best enjoyed the moment the icing is set, or at least the day they are baked, so share a few with friends and family.

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