Sunday, August 30, 2020

Exotic Blackberry Jam - Toast Topper #88

This blackberry jam is flavoured with orange flower water and wildflower honey with a hint of cloves. Its a super special and not too sweet spread for your morning toast!
We are jam fiends around here - probably due to the amount of bread I bake! This year, as with every year, I wind up debating whether or not to properly can my batches of jam, because while they last longer (and are easier to gift), the water-bathing is often time and space consuming in our small, shared kitchen! That said, I do try to suck it up at least one day and process all the jams for the coming year - including this one that I first tried last year. It turned out to be a sleeper hit with everyone, so I was requested to make it again! This time, I simply refrigerated the jars because any I give away can be refrigerated within a few hours and the rest will be eaten in a few months (this jam will keep at least 4 months in the fridge if near the back and tightly lidded).

Unlike many "berry" jams, this one keeps the seeds in (our personal preference of course). You can certainly puree and strain the berries if you want / need this seedless though! The secret was the combination of honey, lime juice and orange flower water, which elevated the berries without overpowering their flavour. With less sugar than a "usual" jam, the fruit flavour was more prominent as well, which is what I, at least, look for in a Toast Topper. If there is any left over (if), I plan to make cookies with it in the middle or mix it into buttercream to top cupcakes!

Saturday, August 29, 2020

Cranberry-Coconut Granola Bars

These Cranberry-Coconut Granola Bars are a delicious snack for after school and since the recipe serves a crowd its great for playdates or parties too!

While I am the first person to admit we have no clue what September is going to hold in terms of school, I do know that fall is around the corner and in some way shape or form kids will be in need of snacks. Depending on where you are, nuts of any kind are a no-go in the lunchbox, making many store-bought granola bars verboten. Those that are "school safe" can also be astronomically high in sugar, salt and fat - and since we all sit way more than we should (even those live wires you see bouncing off the walls), a healthier alternative is generally preferable.

Interestingly enough (for me at least) this recipe was one our school made for our Thanksgiving lunch's "dessert" last year. We always try to get the kids involved with an aspect of the holiday meals, and being the Home Ec teacher at least one class gets me to incorporate the recipe into the curriculum! Given that we were in a totally different mindset last year, it was so easy to make this with the kids, since there was no boiling the sugars or sharp implements involved. What they (and I) liked the best was pressing the mixture onto the sheet tray - them because they got to show off how strong they were, and me because it minimized my contact with the coconut (ironically, the only "nut" we are allowed at school I am allergic to!). Even though the students were pretty young (grades 1-3), the recipe also allowed us to get lessons on fractions, states of matter, food science and even history in without being forced to sit in front of a blackboard (did I just say blackboard? I must be showing my age!).

The bars were crunchy, but not hard, and if we hadn't been serving them at the lunch I would have wrapped them individually in foil so the students could have a portable snack for after school. With no oil, these are low in fat while being high in fibre, and while there is a good amount of sugar you could probably cut the granulated stuff down a little bit if you like. I wouldn't cut it too much because that sugar's melting and re-crystallizing is what helps the bars hold together and get crisp! The recipe is gluten-free as written as well, and easily veganized with ground flax for the egg and using maple syrup or agave (or more corn syrup) for the honey. Speaking of the corn syrup, this is not the HFCS that was a buzzword many years ago - this is your standard Karo, which while still invert sugar, is not the devil of the food industry. The corn syrup and honey maintain the "chew" of the bars, which was the only kind of granola bar I ever liked! In terms of add-ins, try dried cherries and pumpkin seeds, or dried blueberries and almonds (if allowed wherever you're eating the bars, of course!). The base recipe works for so many variations!

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Gnocchi with Caramelized Onion, Duck and Mushroom Gravy

Sauteed homemade gnocchi gets topped with a rich caramelized onion, duck and mushroom gravy. Paired with roasted vegetables (from last night's roast duck) it is a hearty, filling meal for N after a long day!

Is it seriously almost September? While I haven't set foot in a (physical) classroom since the beginning of March, I feel like I never stopped working between remote teaching and remote university courses. However, the calendar doesn't lie, and while it isn't cold yet, we seem to be settling into the comfort-food mode faster than ever around here.
The last time N came over, I asked him if there was anything in particular he wanted for dinner. He absolutely loves duck, and while I couldn't find a duck breast at the store I did come away with a whole bird for a decent price and roasted it on a bed of veggies for one night's dinner. Being, well, me, I had planned for leftovers by making the gnocchi I posted yesterday and picking up a handful of ingredients with the idea to make a caramelized onion and mushroom sauce of some kind. I am a sucker for caramelized onions and mushrooms of all kind, so my brain went on a single track to those flavours! After running the idea past N (he loves French onion soup so he jumped on it) I started thinking of flavours - the thyme I used in the roast duck was mirrored in the gravy with a little rosemary to offset the mushrooms. A little honey amplified the sweetness of the onions while smoked paprika added smokiness that bacon would add (I didn't have any and it would have been too fatty for this recipe anyway). To thicken the gravy, I used a staple in my (and my mom's and my grandma's) pantry called Veloutine, which is essentially an instant starch thickener made by Knorr. If you can't find it (I only found it on the Canadian Amazon site), a cornstarch slurry would work fine! The resulting sauce/gravy is thick, glossy and a perfect foil for the crisp gnocchi.

A few notes for those wanting to make this like I did. I highly recommend you start with a roast duck with plenty of salt, pepper and thyme over a bed of hearty vegetables like carrots and parsnips (even a utility duck will work for this purpose, and they are cheap!). After the duck finished roasting, I strained all the juices into a glass measuring cup and refrigerated it. The creamy, soft white fat rose to the top in a disc which I removed and used part of for the gravy, and the concentrated, almost gelatinous liquid on the bottom became the duck stock when mixed with a little water. Of course, if you are using a cooked duck breast (or another game bird) and don't have access to these flavourful ingredients, I would suggest either store-bought duck fat and a rich chicken bone broth or, in a pinch, butter and bone broth. If you only have chicken stock, I suggest simmering it with dried mushrooms and a scoop of collagen powder (if you have it) for an hour and straining it to add some rich flavour.

Also, if gluten is a problem, the sauce is completely gluten-free - swap in your favourite starch (polenta or mashed potatoes are always good) or use gluten free gnocchi!

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Cheese and Potato Gnocchi

A bunch of pillowy gnocchi get an extra boost of protein and tenderness from pureed cottage cheese and a couple scoops of @nakednutrition Naked Rice protein powder. A quick 12 minute par-bake in a 450F oven sets the outsides so they don't fall apart in storage or the cooking process.

Some days inspiration comes out of the blue. I was planning sides for a roast duck planned for one of the nights N would be over (he loves when I roast it like this on a bed of veggies) and realized there was no plan for leftovers... sacrilege! However, I did have... some ingredients on hand, none of which were enough for a side dish for more than one person. I immediately thought of making a duck gravy to top a starch, namely potatoes, since I remembered the days of Thanksgiving leftovers prepared just like that. However, the heat and humidity had rendered all but one potato useless, so I immediately thought of my fallback plan - gnocchi!

For this batch I was also lucky enough to be given a carton of no-name cottage cheese that my sister bought but didn't like the taste of - when pureed, it was ricotta-smooth in texture and worked identically to the Italian cheese in the recipe! A tiny squeeze of lemon juice added the light tang ricotta normally has, and I added a bit of extra salt and some pepper to boost the flavour as well. In addition to the flour, I added in two scoops of the Naked Rice protein powder I had on hand, which not only added nutrition but kept the dough tender (not chewy like the gluten-heavy gnocchi can be). After mixing, I immediately rolled and cut out the dough and gave it a par-bake to help it hold it's shape - a step that once I learned it I will never forget! Cooked and cooled, the pillows were packed up in a ziploc and stored in the fridge for the three days till I needed it - any longer and I would have frozen the trays before bagging!

The best part about this recipe, for me, was that it made the perfect portion for 4 people as part of a meal. Not only did N have dinner one night (recipe forthcoming!) but he had enough leftovers for the next few days after adding a fresh salad or some steamed broccoli!

Sunday, August 23, 2020

(Almost) Doubletree Cookies

I finally got around to making a week batch of the infamous Doubletree Hotel Chocolate Chip Cookies! I made a few variations on the original, namely veganizing them, but I also used chopped chocolate instead of the chips and pecans instead of walnuts because it's what I had on hand. They are a perfect mix of crisp and chewy with great flavour and texture!

While I've never been to a DoubleTree hotel in my life, I am no stranger to the knowledge that they offer fresh baked cookies on arrival. This fact alone would make me want to stay there - not because I could eat them (cookies are, unfortunately, not on my body's "do" list) but because I do the same thing here when we have guests. Whether it is a large family gathering (and I mean large - Italian families are crazy!) or simply my grandma, N or my sister's boyfriend D, there is a large chance that some form of homemade goodie will be waiting for them. It simply seems like the right thing to do!
While N definitely prefers peanut butter based cookies (or cinnamon cakes), my grandma is definitely one for the more classic flavours. The original cookie recipe that I found online (then rediscovered in a scaled down format) met the criteria for a classic cookie (yes, like my mom used to make) but with enough of a twist with the lemon juice and cinnamon. I set about making this batch a wee bit healthier, though, since while cookies are a treat there's no reason you can't boost flavour and nutrition - plus I was out of eggs and butter thanks to a batch of bread I whipped up the day before. So veganizing the cookie happened as a result, but I also used a touch of whole wheat flour for a bit of extra depth in the flavour department. Because you can never have enough chocolate, I chopped up a bar of my favourite kind, adding the tiny little shards into the dough as well like chocolate confetti! Pecans were always a natural choice for me, as they are my mom's and grandma's favourite nut, and we always have some on hand. 

While you can certainly bake these cookies right away, time got the best of me and I had to stick the dough in the fridge for an hour while I tended to other things. That said, like most cookies (and all those with whole grains), these definitely benefited from the chill time - the dough was thoroughly hydrated and the chocolate had solidified after the heat of the kitchen. When baked, the cookies were thin, with crisp edges and a chewy middle studded with the pecans. The aroma was pure home, and when my grandma walked in she commented how wonderful it smelled!

Saturday, August 22, 2020

Vegan Cottage Pie

This unusual, yet delicious take on the classic Shepherds Pie is completely vegan and packed with vegetables like carrots, onions, lentils, peas and (of course) zucchini! The topping looks cheesy but its actually a mix of sweet and Yukon gold potatoes mashed with rice milk and lots of salt and pepper. I made it in smaller foil pans so N could freeze and eat as he needed. Yum!

I get some of the best cooking inspiration from N. He is so adventurous when it comes to my cooking and he loves to help out, so when he texted me asking if I could make him a vegetarian shepherd's pie I grinned and told him "of course!". That said, I immediately decided to go off on a tangent - not only would this be a vegan shepherd's pie, but it would be crammed full of veggies, legumes and with a deceptively complex tasting topping!

I started off the thought process initially by nixing the whole idea of "fake meat", using lentils exclusively (as in Minimalist Baker's version). However, when I was picking up some other groceries, I came across the Meatless Farm Co. ground on sale and thought the addition of just a little bit of it would help "beef" up the texture (sorry), and stretch the recipe so that I could send N home with lots of leftovers. To the ground I added all the veggies I had on hand - which is to say, zucchini was a must (we are drowning in it) and the standard peas and carrots as well. When it came to the topping, I knew exactly what was expected - N loves sweet potato, so I mashed one in with the standard Russets, which made the pans look like they were topped with cheesy mash! It was a really good thing that this recipe made 4 pans of the pie, though, because it was such a hit N polished off the lot during his stretch at work. Hey, when you need a filling, healthy meal before a graveyard shift, you also want it to taste amazing too!

This recipe is, of course, incredibly versatile - in short, use whatever veggies you have on hand and like. Not a pea fan (hi, me too!)? Throw in chopped green beans, corn, celery, even bell peppers! No meatless ground? Use an extra 1/2 cup of dry lentils when you go to cook them. There are no rules - except to enjoy making and eating it!

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Orchard Harvest Jam - Toast Topper #87

Orchard Harvest Jam is a medley of peaches, blackberries, strawberries and raspberries cooked simply. No adornments needed (or a whole lot of sugar either!)

I get so excited every year when the first Ontario peaches and berries make it to market. Too often, the window where the peaches and nectarines are just right is only a week or two long, and during that time I'm at the farmer's market as much as possible, buying up the local harvest. This year, of course, farmer's markets have been hard to find and a much different experience to attend, and honestly I've been shying away from them because the joy of interaction is gone (for now!). That said, it has been a perfect time to use up my frozen stash of various fruit from over the year, and when I came upon a bag marked "Orchard Harvest Jam" I suddenly remembered I never posted this beauty from last year! So, to make up for it (and while a loaf of zucchini bread baked away in the oven) I made another batch.

This jam is really easy to make, given the already soft nature of thawed fruit. If you only have fresh, absolutely use it - I bet it would make this even more spectacular. Just remember to peel and put the peaches, 'cause those things have no place in a Toast Topper! I used a big ol' potato masher to break down my mix, leaving a bit of texture, but if you want silky smooth run it through a blender or use a stick blender to do the job. I love to use Pomona's Pectin when I do jams, mostly because I hate super-sweet preserves but also to cater to the various health concerns of those I gift jars to. This pectin is calcium-activated and comes with directions on the packet (though I buy mine in bulk these days, so i often Google when I can't remember), but the key is that you can't use too much sugar or it won't set! I have also used this pectin in jams using honey, and it works well there as long as you can dissolve it well enough.

Technical stuff aside, though, the beauty of this jam shines through in it's simplicity. There are no spices, liqueurs, extracts or chocolate to overshadow the ripe fruit, and the tartness of the berries counteracts the sweetness of the peaches. I like to bottle this jam in 4 oz (1/2 cup) jars so that I can stash a few and give the rest away, but if you do can this I would suggest no larger than a 1/2 pint (1 cup) jar so that you can get through it before it goes off (it'll last about 2 weeks in the fridge). You can also freeze this but it won't be as thick upon thawing, then again depending on what you're doing with it that might be perfect (she says as she eats applesauce with slightly runny jam stirred into it).

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Lucifer’s Ginger & Chile Biscuits (copycat)

Lucifer himself won't be able to resist these cookies packed with ginger and a hefty dose of cayenne. Two bite drops are more than enough to satisfy even the most devoted chilehead!

My sister's boyfriend loves all things spicy. He one ate an entire scorpion pepper on a dare - which turned into a series of hilarious text messages which I won't share cut will sum up as a detailed progression of the digestive process. Luckily, he's starting to embrace the fact that spice does not always have to equal heat - it can be a blend of both, and these cookies are definitely testament to that!

I honestly can't remember where I heard about these cookies first - I want to say it was on television but I can't say for sure. At any rate, I was intrigued by their name and decided to look them up, since they did not exist on our Canadian store shelves. A little digging and I was sold. Obviously, I've never had the "real" Lucifer biscuits, but I did find quite the enticing description for them online: "as you munch, the heat builds up slowly and finishes with a warm and well-judged chilli kick. Infernally tempting, it's the biscuit that bites back". Ginger is already spicy and warming, but the added chili definitely brought a different "kick" to the mix. A bit of Googling and I found a recipe on Lost in Food that I used as a basis for my experiments. I only had vegan margarine on hand (being the holidays, I try to make "gift cookies" as neutral as possible) and I bumped up the ginger a little bit while also using a nuttier flour for my base. Next time I may play with adding oatmeal as well, because I love the zing of ginger in oatmeal cookies and I think it could work. It wouldn't be traditional by any means, but that's the fun of baking at home!

I will definitely say that these cookies benefit exponentially from an overnight chill in the fridge (or even in the freezer - you can stash this dough for up to 4 months if wrapped well). The resting allows the spices to permeate the dough and the whole grain flour to hydrate completely, making for way better (and spicier) cookies! If you are really pressed for time, rest the dough at room temperature for 1 hour, then shape and freeze the balls for 15 minutes prior to baking so they don't melt everywhere. It won't be exactly the same, but it will be better than mixing and baking all at once!

Even though it's summertime where we are, I encourage you to give these a try. Just - don't eat them all at once, okay?

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

"Christmas" Thai Curry Paste

Christmas Thai Curry Paste is a flavour (not just heat) packed blend of herbs, fresh chiles, toasted spices and a hint of fish sauce for umami. Perfect for any and all curries you care to whip up!

We make curry at least once a month here, a habit which stemmed from my mom's travels to Thailand when she was working. That said, a lot of the time the actual curry making is done by her, since coconut and I don't mix - but I am always glad to provide the recipes, and making this curry paste is our secret weapon!

While there is absolutely nothing wrong with storebought curry paste - we use it a lot too - when the Summer garden is in full swing it would be a crime not to use what I'm growing! Last year (when I finally refined this recipe) we had a glut of Thai chilies along with Thai basil and lemon balm. My friend happened to be growing cilantro (which similarly took off) and gave me a bunch to cook with. A quick search and about 15 minutes later, and I had a batch of curry paste primed for the next recipe! At the end of the season I made a quadruple batch (yes, a quadruple batch) and froze it, which was great for the cold of winter!

This year, we used the same paste to make a rendition of this curry (using half coconut milk half vegetable broth and doubling the recipe, adding cauliflower and chickpeas) and while spicy it was the perfect mix of flavour and heat. I would wager this would work well with chicken, shrimp or pork as well!

For those of you who are vegan - the fish sauce can be replaced with a tablespoon of red miso which gives it a fermented, salty flavour. Likewise, I have provided an alternative for the lemon balm (which grows rampant here but I know it isn't easy to find in stores) but the Thai basil is best omitted rather than substituted. Regular basil has a totally different flavour to it! Toasting the spices "wakes them up" and really boosts the flavour they lend as well.

If you love Thai curry in any respect, or are simply looking for a way to jazz up your cooking, this paste is a dead-simple, fresh way to do it. Give it a try and let me know how it goes, and what you used it in, below!