Monday, January 30, 2012

Worth the Extra Step

In this world of instant gratification and fast fixes for everything from planting a garden to enjoying a hard-boiled egg, the true art and care of doing these simple tasks is often shoved to the side. Why bother to remember a fabric softener sheet to your dryer loads when now there's a product you toss in for a whole season, or send a gift by regular mail when an instant e-card with an online gift certificate will do?

At the very least, the art of cooking like Grandma is waning in popularity, especially with the high demand for fast (and often figure-friendly) foods. Don't get me wrong - I'm all for convenience and speed in the kitchen, just not for the junky tags that come along with so much of those pre-fabricated products. Canned beans and tomatoes, dried pasta, ground spices and rolled oats are all in my pantry. I have bottled lemon juice and ketchup in my fridge.  But some things, if you're going to do them at all, are just worth doing right. For me, those things are the simple and inexpensive classics: bread, muffins, cookies and biscuits.

I know - it's an ideal scenario to have the time, patience and ability to pull a picture-perfect pan of anything baked out of the oven. Box mixes, frozen or refrigerated dough and even pre-sliced, pre-garlic buttered bread is pretty much foolproof, and in a time or ingredient crunch with demandingly hungry (or picky) audiences I use them with abandon. I have never been able to justify the refrigerated biscuits, however. My grandma's buttermilk biscuits, using shortening and without the need for finicky butter, chilling and careful rolling, were just so simple and fast to whip up - 15 minutes and I had a dozen sitting in a bread basket. But even I can learn how to take a little extra time, an extra step, and perfect the flaky morsels my family and I love so much. Peter Reinhart's method not only uses chilled, cubed butter, but then letter folds the dough three times before cutting it and baking (no pre-chilling, thankfully!).

Is it worth it? Well, if your goal is puff pastry-like, buttery layers, a hint of crispness to the crust and an interior that needs no adornment (although jam would find a welcome home in the crannies), then the answer is undoubtedly, unequivocally yes. That said, am I making these for every Saturday morning brunch or Sunday supper? To put it mildly - BWAHAHAHAHA, no. But really, if you're having biscuits that often, you probably have other things in your diet to worry about.  

What things do you always (or almost always) make from scratch, or value most when you know they're homemade?

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Vegan Pumpkin Shortbreads

Sometimes I think I'm getting slower and slower off the draw. I mean, really, it's not exactly "pumpkin" season anymore (although I guess that depends on who you talk to...) and yet I had the scent of baking squash with hints of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves wafting through my kitchen. And cranberries too! But I think this is what happens when, like me, you have way too much time on your hands (though I did finally write and post a new NEW-trition article), a fully stocked baker's pantry, an internet connection and the sudden realization that after all that careful planning during the holidays you left one person off your list. Oh well - what better excuse to get back into the kitchen and make some melt-in-your-mouth, rather unusual, shortbread cookies?

These are to my mom's classics like the Trans Siberian Orchestra is to Beethoven - same spirit, different twist. These are tender, sugary and not overly good for you, but rather than the taste of butter being in the forefront the spices and pumpkin shine through. The original recipe came from the blog Adventures in Shaw, and after reading through the comments and perusing the recipe, I came up with my own modified version that suited me just fine! If you don't opt for the mix ins like I used, the dough can be rolled into a log and partially frozen for slice-n-bake cookies. Otherwise, I found scooping about 1 ½ tbsp sized balls, flattening them slightly and baking them that way to work best.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Bananas Foster Jam

I've never had the pleasure of visiting New Orleans, but to me it is without doubt the world's most fascinating city. I've loved the whole idea of Louisiana for years, since my first taste of jambalaya when I was about 7, and for a solid two years I was all about the Ya-Ya movie and book series (which I highly recommend you read!), decorated my bedroom in Mardi Gras beads that my grandparents brought back from the real NOLA shindig, and begged my parents to book us into the Orlando location of the House of Blues restaurant for dinner when we went to see The Mouse. Though I only made it to HoB once (and now can't have my beloved andouille jambalaya lest I get sick), every time I go to Disney World I still have to buy at least 3 bottles of Bayou Heat hot sauce (although in retrospect I should have bought about 12 the last time, I'm out :-( ).  I can't wait until the day I can finally walk around the French Quarter, check out what real Cajun and Creole music is like live, and totally immerse myself in the insanely rich culture, art and (of course) food! It would be a total win in my book to hit the city at the peak of it's celebration activity, the infamous Mardi Gras, but in all honesty just being there would be the experience of a lifetime.

Along with the jambalaya, gumbo, po-boys, muffulettas and etoufee, NOLA has a sweet side to share with it's visitors too. Beignets, pecan pie and King Cake are commonly thought of, as is the infamous Bananas Foster. A Brennan's specialty (according to NOLA Online the restaurant serves over 35,000 pounds of bananas yearly with this dessert), the flaming, sliced bananas are legendary and really, it's hard to argue with a bowl of ice cream topped with a combination of buttery, soft fruit, caramelized sugar and rum!

It was in the spirit of this NOLA hallmark sweet that I came up with this banana and raisin "jam". With hardly any sugar and no fat to speak of, it's a more "breakfast friendly" way to get your fix! Given that it's really only designed as a "store in the fridge" type of spread, I scaled back one of the jam recipes I found in my mom's cookbook Caribbean Cuisine and switched up the flavours a little bit, cooking the sugar into a slightly thicker, more caramelized syrup than called for originally, adding a packet of caramel flavoured stevia and raisins for a bit of extra oomph, and both doubling the rum and adding it with the vanilla off the heat. Because I had it on hand, I added a tiny dribble of butter flavouring to the vanilla and rum, which instantly made me visualize the fruit sizzling in a Louisiana pan as the chef goes to light off the rum. If you don't have either the stevia or the extract, no worries - it will be plenty caramelized as it is, and if you really need that butter element you can stir in a half teaspoon of the creamy stuff (or it's equally delicious substitute) at the end before adding the rum and extracts.

Have you ever been to NOLA or had Bananas Foster? What did you think?

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Apple Coconut Coffee Cake - No Gluten, No Nuts, All Vegan!

Well, this recipe was a long time coming. I made this waaaay back in October, when I did the cake and cupcakes for the autism gala, but somehow it fell off the face of my "I should post this" planet. That said, it is not exactly a cake like any other, and it's definitely not from a box!

I actually made this for the coordinator of the charity gala, since she's been so generous by both figuring out all the logistics of the event and it's associated dessert auction and asking me to bake every year! Keeping in tune with the general autism diet restrictions of gluten- and casein-free, I wanted to give her something that was also nut and egg free just in case someone in her home had an allergy or intolerance to those too. Of course, I knew exactly where I'd be headed for the inspiration and at least a basic recipe - and really, would you argue with a Goddess? A couple of clicks and a quick pantry check down the road later, I knew what I'd be making: Karina's self-proclaimed
"lovely gluten-free apple cake with coconut flour".

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Master of Disguise

Have you ever had a Green Monster?

Not as a pet, of course. I'm talking about the early 2009 superfood creation by Angela of Oh She Glows and the health-community movement that exploded behind her (and not that kind of movement). Simply put, a Green Monster is a smoothie made up of blended greens (usually kale or spinach), fruit (berries, bananas, mango...) and whatever else the concocting cook desires - commonly seeds, protein powders, even nut butters. The idea is to get as much bang out of the green stuff without actually tasting the green stuff. I've had a few of these beasts in my life (perils of being in a holistic college) and regardless of what was in them, they were, well, a bit beastly. The closest I came to enjoying one of these was when I was served a blend of spinach, bananas, strawberries, stevia, dates and cocoa powder - in other words, more stuff than greens!

Luckily, my tastebuds don't have the same objection to the puree when it's baked into something thoroughly decadent. Between a wine-soaked grape cake, a cakey brownie and a rather crazy muffin, I know that leafy greens can definitely hold their own in the sweet kitchen.

It turns out that I'm not alone in baking the Green Monster into decadent treats! I found an insanely rich looking recipe by Kels (of the blog K and K Test Kitchen) and knew I had to do a spin on it, and make something really monsterous! I decided to bump up the omegas with hits of walnut, spelt, chia and flax, added some dates (I love dates!) and used bittersweet miniature chocolate chips instead of milk to keep the overall nutrient profile a bit higher than it would have been. It looked a bit creepy and even scary coming together, but once it did? These weren't just ogres of omegas, they were dragons of deliciousness!

Sunday, January 15, 2012

A Cobbler's Cookie

I decided to clean out and organize my baking pantry today.

Holy crap, do I have a lot of stuff! A four-page list of stuff. And not much of it is of sufficient quantity to do anything with, which is why about two hours into this little adventure and finding bags and bags of bits and pieces of stuff, I turned to the collaborative minds of Twitter for inspiration. Carla (author of the newly redesigned blog Chocolate Moosey) took pity on me and filled my stream (and mind!) with all sorts of ideas! Like my Tag-A-Long Cookies, it turned into a "use up or toss out" exercise, and in the end I had some chewy, whole wheat cookies encasing large-flake rolled oats, graham cracker crumbs, chopped Cadbury Mini Eggs and milk-chocolate Raisinets.

So is using up stuff an original theme on this blog? No. But was it a tasty outcome? You bet.

Friday, January 13, 2012

An Apple (or Two) a Day

Fall and Winter around here usually means that apples and apple products begin making their appearance in rather staggering amounts. Call it an attempt at frugal living, call it a sad stab at balancing out the rich foods of the holidays, but whatever the reason we always seem to have way more apples at the brink of "overripe" than we can handle at the end of the season. This ends in one of three ways - impromptu dried apple rings, apple sauce, or it's kissing cousin apple butter. All three found their way into the household this year, and thanks to the holiday yearnings for apple butter-pumpkin pie and a round of colds that left us slurping warmed applesauce for comfort most of the bounty was used by year's end.

Just before Christmas, when we were all more than sated with appley fare, my stepdad came home with a holiday gift from his office: a giant, one gallon jug of organic apple cider. For those of you who don't know what this glorious drink is, it's basically unsweetened, unfiltered, pressed apple juice. When you buy it in the stores, chances are it's pasteurized, but it still has a definite shelf life. After force-feeding it to friends and family and drinking ourselves to the point of bursting, we still had a decent amount left over - and given my Scottish (read: cheap!) nature I didn't want to see it poured down the drain. Cider is one of those things that I only ever get to consume in the Fall, when we go apple picking, so it's fairly close to my heart. I wanted to embrace and promote the rich, warming flavour of the beverage in whatever I did with it, and was glad to find so many others felt the same way. I picked a couple that sounded interesting and went to town. One of them I was fairly confident I could make grand substitutions to and still pull it off without much issue... but the second (which also served to use up the dregs of heavy cream) pretty much scared the bejeezus out of me.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Sunny Days Ahead (Hopefully!)

I could use some sun. The skies outside are still a dreary grey, and the rest of the foliage around here is all one shade of... blah. Browny-olivey grass, trees that didn't quite lose their leaves thanks to the warmer weather, and plants in the garden that gave up the ghost ages ago but never recieved their white winter coats are all I get to look at when I let the dog out for his constitutional.

Then again, we aren't digging ourselves out of 11 feet of snow like these poor folks, and hey, if I lived in the Yukon Territory there is no way I'd be going out in the -34°C windchill. I'm not complaining about our mild weather, as some members of the household and a few skiing friends of mine have been. All I want is a little break in the clouds, a peek of blue sky every once in a while, and some confirmation that the sun does, in fact, still exist.

While I may not have the sun outside, I can still bring a little bit of it to my kitchen! It's hard to argue with the comfort and warmth that a homemade loaf of bread brings to the house, and for me any exuse to fire up the oven is a good one. Trying to coax le soleil out of it's hiding place, I used a few types of sunflower seeds in the simple whole wheat dough: ground (using the flour I talked about here) and shelled, toasted whole. The seeds added a nice texture and crunch along with a boost of flavour that certainly brightened up my day as it baked to a light sandwich-style loaf. I can only hope that it also brought some sunny splendor to my good friend who recieved one of these for Christmas!

Wouldn't you know it? As soon as I finished typing this post, Mr Sun came out! We visited for only five minutes, but it's five minutes I'll take!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Tagging Along

Somewhere, in the depths of my basement, lies Tag-Along.

Tag-Along was one of my mom's storybooks as a child, given to her by I believe an aunt, and was subsequently given to me when I was born (along with my favourite stuffed lamb, a giant toucan plushie and a stuffed pastel kite that I still have in my closet, but that's another story). The book was written by Bernice Frankel and published in 1962 (I won't tell you my mom's age at the time - she'd kill me) as a "Reading Readiness Book" from Parents Magazine, and tells the story of the ritual morning meetings of four animal friends: a crow, a goat, a rat and Tag-Along, the turtle - so named because he always came last. It was kind of a sad story, since Tag-Along was always made fun of and left behind until the others needed him to rescue them from traps and hunters. Go figure.

As a heavy, red-faced kid who was often made fun of at school, I always identified with the poor creature. I wasn't athletic, or strong, or overly funny (unless the kids were laughing at me) but I was sharp as a tack (I like to think I still am, but who knows!) and my "friends" used that to their advantage in copying any and all of my work. Kids are cruel, no? As a result, I only really found friendship with a handful of people who, like me, were "different" from the girly cliques - most of the boys in my class, the teachers, the troublemakers, and in highschool, the kids who were physically similar to me.

Things got better. I lost weight (sadly yes, it did make a difference to my social life) and moved on to university, college and finally the Institute. I found my niche with those older than me both physically and emotionally, and while things were not always hunky-dory, there were substantially more "good" times than bad. And regardless of what happened along the way there was always one thing.

Monday, January 2, 2012

A "Paws"-itive Response

After all the goodies I made for the people on my holiday giving list, some may think that I forgot the four-legged furry members of the family! Fear not - not only did we bust out the catnip I dried over the summer for the felines here (apart from Dish, who is anti-drug apparently), but I sent a little "care package" of "kitty hash" and a new copy of Gourmet Gifts, since I love that book (especially the nuts!), to my animal-loving, ever-crafting aunt and uncle out west too. Some of you know that we also have an old grizzled mutt at home (and I do mean that in the nicest way possible), and my dad's the "puppy papa" of a golden retriever puppy and an adopted Labrador. My uncle has always had dogs, and his goofy black Lab is no exception. So I had at least four tails to wag this holiday!

I never actually planned on making something for the dogs' Christmas gifts, since I am in no way, shape or form skilled in what non-human systems need, want, can and cannot have. I was all prepared to pick up some rawhide chewies on the way to his place. After talking to my dad though, he told me that when a supply issue had forced them to switch the dogs to a wheat- and corn-free, low-grain formula for a short time, the instances of the dogs' ear infections dropped and they seemed a bit more attentive and energetic without being destructive. Apparently with our old Lab Brandy (RIP, old girl), the story was much the same. A pet food recall mandated a switch in diet, which led to her eyes and ears clearing up, her energy to perk up and even her digestion to improve (i.e. a lot less undigested poop!). He wanted to find out if there was a way to make less-inflammatory treats for his clan without paying the insane prices specialty pet foods often command, and asked if I had some recipes for him. Well, the extent of my pet-food knowledge was "no chocolate, no alcohol, no garlic, no onions", so I did a little digging. Lo and behold, once I started looking, I found out that there is a huge list of bad foods for dogs (including why they are, which I appreciated).

That was a lot to filter through in my "mental picture" of what dog treats are flavoured like, but at least I had my baseline of "avoids", which I added wheat and corn to to minimize the overall risk of reaction. I called on whatever skill I developed working with gluten-free recipes and although what I came up with were not gluten free (using rye, barley and uncertified oat flours), these grains are easier for canine systems to digest and provide much needed fibre and slow-release energy. Add in coat-enhancing fatty acids from natural peanut butter, olive oil, pumpkin and seeds, antioxidants from beets and apples and protein from legumes and seed flours and these became some pretty epic snacks!