Sunday, April 29, 2012

Port and Sesame Biscuits

It's a fairly well known fact that I don't drink. I was never big on the taste of alcohol, despite my early introduction to it (in sips!) by my parents. It held no allure, and in most cases just bordered on plain nasty. Wine, champagne, spirits, or any beer besides Guinness? I'd take a pass (and even in the case of Guinness I had to be in the mood to drink it). Wine and champagne were the worst to my tastebuds, and discovering that I was hyper-sensitive to alcohol was almost a blessing because it meant I had an acceptable excuse for avoiding it at social events.

But just because I can't drink any alcohol doesn't mean I won't cook with it! I'm fully aware of the flavour profile a good glug of red wine can add to a beef stew, and how a glass of white can transform a chicken, broth and rice combination to Hen and Chick[pea] Paella Soup. I'm not above baking with it either, as numerous cakes, pie crusts, a peach tart and even a cookie I've posted show. Why not add to the boozy cookie arsenal with an unusual offering that is meant to be served with the liquor it contains?

When my grandparents came back from a trip to Portugal and Spain with a renewed taste for the sweet, fortified wine of the Portuguese Douro region, they also brought back a few bottles of varying kinds. After a few "try this one!" tastings of different bottles (I know one was a white port, which I had never heard of before), a tawny barrel-aged concoction, was gifted to us. Then it just sat in our liquor cabinet, more or less forgotten. Until now, that is.

A few months ago, I was reading through a copy of Vegan Cookies Invade Your Cookie Jar that I had taken out of the library and stumbled onto Isa's recipe for Sweet Wine Biscuits with Sesame. I was intrigued by the fact that the cookies were not overly sugary in design, more or less riding on the port for a little "oomph" (or in Portuguese, eu não sei o que!). I made some modifications to the recipe along the way, finding the dough too finicky as written, but the overall spirit (pardon the pun) stayed the same. I agree that these would be great to put on a cheese tray with fruit and crackers after dinner with a glass of the good (?) stuff.                     

Friday, April 27, 2012

Gianduja Cookies

I've been in a bit of a funk this past week - physically, emotionally and mentally. No matter what I tried, I just couldn't find the "get up and go" to do the things I normally clamour to, which was (to put it mildly) frustrating!

Finally, it seems, I've got my groove back on track. Between hitting the gym, having great conversations with pals on Twitter, a dinner out with my sister and dad, getting super excited about a friend's new baby boy and hearing about Carla's Award-Winning Chocolate Coconut Cupcakes, I've been too busy to be mopey (although I did take a few naps along the way)! The other thing that I love to do when I have a fresh burst of energy (or a ball of stress) is - surprise! - bake! Chocolate is such a great comfort food to me, and Nutella used to be a weakness that I could eat right from the jar.

The rich chocolate-hazelnut combination is also nothing new on this blog or in the food world in general. To me, the sudden craze for the spread was somewhat belated - by the time the rest of the world caught on to it, my sister and I had been eating it for almost 20 years. From what I can gather, it was the company's lack of cross-America availability until recently that's to blame, but now that it's here, it's here to stay. Unless somebody else decides to sue Ferrero, that is. Seriously - what posesses someone to believe that a chocolate spread is an overly healthy item? Even if the marketing did portray it as such (and I'm not saying it does or doesn't), can we not read labels anymore and see the 11 grams of sugar, 100 calories and 6 grams of fat per TABLESPOON?

But I digress.

These cookies actually don't contain Nutella - at least not the spreadable variety. Instead, I took the flavour elements of Nutella on toasty whole wheat bread and formed them into a sweet, snackable and much less messy form!

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Lemon and Herb Scented Spring Vegetables - Recipe ReDux

Sometimes it's the little things that just make your day. For me, it was driving home from an appointment earlier this week, when I noticed that our local produce shop was once again open for business after a winter that seemed far too long (even if it was mild). Our family's been shopping there for years and within the past few seasons they've also opened a community vegetable garden next door, so those who can't afford to buy organic or fresh produce have the opportunity to grow a row for their tables. What I love most about this little shop was open again is the fact that it often heralds the arrival of Ontario-grown asparagus, fiddleheads, radishes and greenery. Ultimately, the beginning of local harvest season means tomato season is just around the corner.

I'm honoured to now be part of a healthy cooking and blogging event series called The Recipe Redux. This event series is founded by registered dietitians (though any health-conscious blogger can participate) and each month centres on a different theme ingredient or concept that we embrace in a healthy way. For April, the theme (chosen by Katie of HealthyBites) is “The First Shoots of Spring” - the tender, baby plants beginning to crop up around us. While a lot of the more commonly accepted "spring" veggies aren't available here yet, the few that are are packed with vitamins, minerals and the innate energy that comes from reviving after a long winter dormancy. Think of the common winter crops out there - mostly plants that are storing all their goodness in their roots, forming starchy or sweet vegetables like beets, potatoes, turnips and carrots. Come the thaw, the energy comes back to the stems and leaves, fueling the plant growth and giving us the treats like spinach, rhubarb and asparagus.

Given that we actually do have some local asparagus now, I chose to focus on it's fresh, green flavour when it came time to find an Easter dinner side. The recipe is a variation on my award winning (and recently published) Sautéed Asparagus and Mushrooms in a Lemon – Thyme Butter, where I swapped out the mushrooms for blanched carrot coins (since we were also serving a mushroomy dish). I also opted to add a touch of rosemary to the thyme butter to pair well with that night's roasted turkey. The flavourful but light medley was, to quote my mom, "a reminder of why I loved the original".

Friday, April 20, 2012

Kettle Korn Cookies

I never used to like the taste of Kettle Korn. The sugar, the butter, the strange combination of salt and sweet with a poufy, crunchy chew that too often melted into stale gumminess by the time you got to the bottom of the bowl - it just didn't appeal to my younger palate. Times changed, I grew up and fell in love with the flavour of the Scouts' microwave variety - nowhere near a nutritious choice, but the rich, balanced flavour made it worth every calorie. Eventually I found mini bags of it which sated my cravings, but those disappeared from our stores quickly, leaving me with only one bag left. Thankfully (in a way) the high oil content in the snack meant I couldn't eat it anymore anyways, but that still left me with the problem of this extra bag.

Then I saw this post on SugarHero for Kettle Corn Cookies a la Trader Joe's. Never having been in one of those superstores myself, I didn't have a point of reference, but I did know what I wanted in my cookies. Or rather, what I didn't want. The economics of our house right now meant butter and eggs are reserved for meals, rather than baked goods - especially considered that the end product wasn't going to be around for family nosh (not that it would matter, nobody here is willing to eat baked goodies anymore). I also wanted to minimize or eliminate the amount of white flour and sugar that went into the batch, since kettle corn is by nature sweet!

After a few Googles, I came across the Amazon blog Al Dente's recipe for Popcorn Cookies, which were not only completely whole grain but vegan! I had a few problems getting the mixture originally posted to come together into anything other than sandy crumbs, so I modified along the way until I was rewarded with a sticky batter ready for the pan. I also got far fewer cookies than Sidra Forman's original recipe dictated, but that wasn't too big of a deal. Because the originals also only used plain popcorn (and weren't really designed to be sweet from what I could see) I played around by using a mixture of raw sugar, Krisda's stevia baking blend and Nature's Agave delicious, rich amber agave syrup and doing away with white sugar altogether. I actually really loved the caramelly flavour the agave gave to the fine-grained mixture, especially around the edges where it added a little bit of toffee crunch. I can only imagine how delicious it would be in a smoothie or pudding where it's not cooked out at all!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Dental Soft Doggy Bites

Those of you who work in the healthcare industry will know what I mean by the term "dental soft". Actually, if you've ever had your teeth pulled, braces tightened or other oral procedures done, you'll likely be familiar with the feeling of being unable to chew much of anything! Most of my experience with the phrase came from working in a retirement facility coding and modifying menu charts, and it was a more or less running joke in our family since the home would simply overcook or food-processor chop the whole menu together and spoon feed the rather unappetizing result to the seniors. But lo and behold, that short co-op of mine came calling, just not in the human form I expected.

We have an old dog.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Cinnamon - Raisin Bread for Dad

When my dad (another die-hard cinnamon raisin bread fan) found out I was making the sister a loaf of his preferred breakfast carb, he sent me a twitter message asking if I could make him one too! Of course, I had to say yes. Even if it wasn't family, the thought of making bread again was a thrill I haven't really had the pleasure of since my mom decided to lose her post-marriage weight and I jumped at the chance to do it.

With my dad, unlike my sister, I wanted to pay a closer attention to the nutrition I was incorporating into the dough and filling. My dad's a Type II diabetic and fairly health conscious these days, knowing his numbers and trying his best to lose the weight that undoubtedly contributed to the condition. He's doing well, and I want to keep him going that way for a long time! He works some strange hours some times and as a result snacks more so than meals are a staple of his menu, so when I crafted this version of yesterday's bread, I made it higher in fibre and protein for more "staying power" and an impact on the carb count. Instead of sugar in the dough, I used the low-glycemic maple syrup and a stevia baking blend, and cut down the sugar in the filling with help from a caramel-flavoured packet of stevia and nixing the cinnamon chips.

This bread doesn't rise as high or need as much bake time as yesterday's loaf did, mostly because the use of the gluten free chickpea flour, psyllium fibre husks and oat bran don't "spring" and I remembered to do the filling properly this time! It is still all the things a good cinnamon raisin bread should be, sweet and spicy with pops of juicy raisins, but with a nice nutty undertone.

I'm sending this loaf off to Susan's Friday round up at YeastSpotting.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Sister's Sweet Cinnamon - Swirl Bread

French toast just isn't French toast without cinnamon-raisin bread. At least, that's how my family sees it. Our weekend breakfasts would fill the house with the spicy, sweet scent of blooming cinnamon and slowly cooking egg, culminating in a grand finale of maple syrup-drenched slabs of custardy bread with a glass of OJ on the side. That's still our favourite way to enjoy the beautifully rolled, swirly loaves, and my sister even sometimes gilds the lily by simply toasting a few pieces of our standard storebought thick-cut cinnamon-raisin bread and smearing them with Nutella. Yes... I said Nutella. It's not my taste preference (I have a personal bias against melted peanut butter or Nutella on bread, not to mention I generally don't like fruit and chocolate together [notable exceptions being strawberries and cherries dipped in bittersweet goodness :-)]) but who am I to judge?

My sister's coming home from her second year of university today, and like most post-secondary students her diet underwent a bit of an overhaul while she was away. Ironically though, instead of the junk food, ramen-noodle and booze eating patterns you hear about new students developing, she went the opposite way. She came home on breaks asking for brown rice vermicelli, green peas, salad and whole wheat bread! Since her beloved loaf is not of the whole wheat variety, I wanted to make her one that she could take with her to her new job away in Guelph this Summer.

Her loaf uses the same basic principles of my favourite cinnamon-raisin bread, incorporating cinnamon chips into the "swirl" and making an enriched yeast dough to hold it together, but she's not a fan of coconut milk or "grainy" bread so I just switched up those ingredients for regular dairy and plain whole wheat flour. I also messed up the filling portion somewhat (which is why you read the recipe first, kids!) and mixed everything with the egg instead of using the egg to brush the dough pre-sugar sprinkle. It made rolling it a bit touch-and-go, and very messy, but eventually it all turned out. It rose beautifully and smelled decadent as it baked - even my stepfamily said so - and while the more "liquid" filling meant a slightly longer baking time (and greater crust burning risk) it was nothing that a tent of foil couldn't solve.

I'm submitting this to Susan's Friday round up at YeastSpotting

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Gluten Free Lemon Poppy - Seed Cookies

I'm a huge lemon eater, and lately it seems like citrus as a whole have wrestled their way into the string of things I've been baking! I love lemon-poppyseed EVERYTHING, and always have. The other day, for example, my mom and I were talking about seeing her old office cronies and memories of their cafeteria came to our minds. Looking back, the food there was anything but fine, fresh (or even particularly flavourful) dining. One "hot" serving station, cling-wrapped sandwiches with suspect ingredients, stale bagels, and possibly some ice-cold, pre-made salads, made up the bulk of the space (I doubt it's changed much) and usually people were only dropping in for a coffee or a between-meeting snack. It wasn't one of the most inviting spaces in the building, but when you're a 10 year old kid with a day off school and you're hanging out at your parent's workplace before a doctor's appointment, the prospect of going down there mid morning for a drink and a snack was manna. On those trips with mom, my (food) order would remain constant - one of their to-die-for gigantic lemon poppyseed muffins. I'm sure they came from some warehouse supplier (like the bagels and maybe the sandwiches did), but they were moist, just dense enough to fill you up and most importantly, HUGE and sugar laden!

I've only posted a single lemon-poppyseed muffin recipe on this blog, and truth be told I wasn't a fan of it. It didn't feel right somehow, and I've yet to figure out the key to those long ago confections. Even my lemon poppyseed loaves over the years have been hit and miss - while I once tried (and failed spectacularly) to make one of Anna Olson's cakes (which was a tragedy, since it looked so delicious on screen), there have been successes. I think, if I was to try again, a combination of my Sticky Lemon-Poppy Loaf and my favourite Poppyseed - Layered Lemon Loaves recipes would be close, if not dead on.

But I haven't done that here. Instead, I made cookies. And not only are these little shortbread-like two biters very lemony and seedy, they're gluten free, egg free, dairy free and easily made vegan by swapping out the honey for brown rice syrup or agave nectar. I saw the original in a copy of Parenting Magazine, who in turn took it from Elana's Pantry, but of course I had to make some changes along the way too!

I'm submittng this to Ricki's  Wellness Weekend event! What's your favourite lemon poppyseed treat?

Monday, April 9, 2012

Limoncello "Biscotti Truffle" Balls

Well now that the Easter to-dos are squared away for another year, and the dinner leftovers have been frozen for later or given away to guests, the fun part of the Easter clean-up can start. I`m talking of course about the task of powering through all the goodies Mr. Cottontail dropped around the house on Saturday night! For the kids (at least to my recollection), it really doesn't seem to matter if the chocolate is the $2,600 / lb Knipschildt or the dollar store milk bunnies - like on Halloween, accessible and universally liked sugar rushes are the order of the day.

For those of us with older, more discerming palates, the pleasures of simple sugar and cheap fat overload quickly lose their charm. The appreciation of more "adult" flavour combinations and textures (think fruit, nuts, crisps and liqueurs) comes into bloom, and with it a world of possibilities in the home kitchen. For the final round of Easter goody-making I undertook (after the marshmallows and the eggs) I went back to the tried and true "cake ball" style of candymaking, but this time in place of dried out cake crumbs I used crushed biscotti and leftover buttercream filling from the walnut meringues. Given that the biscotti was somewhat drier than cake would be, it took a couple extra glugs of Limoncello to supplement the rehydration into a scoopable dough. Coated in rich, high quality white chocolate (and the debate regarding it's status as "real chocolate" notwithstanding), the bright yellow hearts radiate the glow of great flavours to come. The kids will likely turn their noses up at them (a good thing if you're overly concerned about the whole 3 tbsp of alcohol in the batch) but really, that just means more for you! Who ever said the Easter bunny ignored Mom and Dad?

Friday, April 6, 2012

Creme Eggs and Cake Eggs - Happy Easter!

Are you a candy fiend at Easter? I know that my sister and I couldn't wait to wake up on Easter Sunday (doubly so if it was one of our birthdays, which always bracket the holiday) to scour the house for those tiny, milk "chocolate" foil wrapped eggs and maybe a "big" treat somewhere along the way. I remember as a small child finding a huge (to me) hollow chocolate Mickey Mouse in his Sorcerer's Apprentice robe and hat, and trying to make it last by eating it so slowly that my mom finally told me just to eat the darn thing or she'd throw it out.

Then, the infamous Creme Eggs came out and any hint of restraint I might have had disappeared. My "big treat" was a 3-pack of them, and a handful of the miniature ones as well. While at least one of the larger ones disappeared within about 30 seconds of me finding them, Mom would insist that I save the rest for later - and the best way we kept them out of sight was to stash them in the freezer. In effect, this move slightly backfired, since I discovered that freezing the mini eggs made them taste better than at room temperature.

School was another Easter blowout in terms of treats. We had a weekly "bake sale" fundraiser to subsidize our field trips at the end of the year, and just before we all went off for our long weekends the table was always laden with things you wish the Bunny would leave you. Orange jelly beans in cone-shaped bags with a layer of green ones on top for the "fronds", Jell-O eggs, storebought cupcakes and sugar cookies (there was always one in every group) and the like. But my (and most other students' favourite) were the chocolate covered, egg shaped cakes that one of the kids brought in. This was before the world of food blogging (we were still working off DOS at school), and certainly before the Cake Pop exploded onto the scene, but they were essentially the very same things, just egg-shaped. We had lemon, carrot, vanilla and chocolate varieties over the years, and when I finally found out that it really just was a case of marked down, slightly stale cake from the bakery in the grocery store, a little flavouring extract and either milk or frosting that made them taste so delicious I couldn't believe it.

So, for Easter and it's memories, I'm sharing these two memories and some updated versions of the recipes. You will need a special, high-tech tool for the chocolate coatings though:

I know, right? Cheap (or free!), so dead simple, but so effective to get the coatings done with minimal mess!

So, without further ado:

Monday, April 2, 2012

California Walnut Meringues with Limoncello Buttercream

Walnuts are one of those amazing foods. We know they're healthy, full of Omega-3 fats, clean-burning vegan protein, stay-full fibre and minerals - a great snack for midafternoon with a piece of fruit (and maybe a small piece of chocolate, I won't tell). But these rich, slightly bitter nuts are also super high in phytonutrients that are in almost no other foods, including anti-inflammatory agents that protect against bone loss and blood vessel damage (amongst other things). Walnuts even have a special form of the all-important vitamin E in them that lowers men's risk of developing heart and blood vessel problems! After all, there's a reason the nuts are heart-shaped.

Sadly (and shockingly, to me at least) only about 6% of adults eat any tree nuts at all. It's a shame, since those who do eat the bounty of the local trees enjoy the benefits of increased fibre, potassium, calcium, magnesium, and vitamin E, and can kiss up to 157mg of sodium good bye! Given the general state of the Western world's health (especially blood pressure and diabetes) I think it's time we gave the humble walnut a second chance.

Thankfully, we have more resources (and foodies) than ever that are packed with ideas, tips, recipes and lots of inertia to get us all on the bandwagon. When the Canadian chapter of the California Walnuts Commission approached me with some new recipes perfect for your next Springtime soiree, I jumped at the chance - especially when one of those new recipes was for a foodie favourite: The macaron.

Even if you think you've had macarons before, I'd give this recipe a go - the richer, slightly more "adult" flavour of the walnuts really stands out against the tangy, slightly boozy cream filling. If you wanted to avoid alcohol completely you could certainly use a touch of lemon juice or orange juice for a more "all inclusive" citrus flavour, but for a recipe that made more than enough filling for the 8 sandwiches there's a grand total of two tablespoons. Even if I had used all the filling, you'd get a measly 3/4 of a teaspoon of Limoncello per sandwich! That's a pretty good deal, if I say so myself.

My macarons (which I tinted green and yellow for a more "Springlike" feel) never got the signature "feet" of their fancy French counterparts, but in all honesty it doesn't really matter. I gave some of them to a prospective client of mine who shared them with her household and reported back not that there was a missing "appendage" to the cookies or that they looked imperfect (which, lets face it, they were) but that they adored these "nouveau" sandwich cookies and could she please have the recipe! Well, I'm happy to oblige, and hope that the rest of you find these just as wonderful.