Best of Baking

IMG_0803The holiday break has afforded many opportunities to rev up the new Kitchenaid mixer. I look at it daily and think “what can we make today?” And then I tell my mixer that treats cannot be an everyday occurrence. Although they should be.

For a New Year’s get together I jumped on the chance to bring dessert so that I would have an excuse to make a chocolate cake. I made my favourite Nigella version, posted here. It was more-ish as always and was promptly demolished, as chocolate cakes should be. You should make it. And fill your face with it-but don’t blame me for your derailed resolutions. Blame Nigella.IMG_0793

If you want something a little lighter and less guilt-inducing, I made holiday gingerbread in December and didn’t get around to posting it. I shared the cookies around at a few holiday shindigs and people are still talking to me about it. It’s just a McCormick recipe, but I think the magic is in the technique. Roll the dough as thin as you can and bake them until firm, and you’ll end up with light, crispy, refreshing ginger bombs. They are so good and so delightfully spiced that I am thinking about making another batch just to have for after-dinner treats. They keep really well in the freezer, just waiting for when you need a ginger pick-me-up. You can also tell yourself that ginger is good for digestion and therefore this cookie is good for you. Plus they have molasses and that’s better than white sugar, right?Blueberry Muffins

So finally, in a moment of holiday boredom, I whipped up some blueberry muffins to pass the time. I used my favourite recipe from Smitten Kitchen (see my previous post here) and they were perfect to have on hand for post-Christmas snacking and lounging about.

So here are 3 ideas for homemade treats to start 2013 with a bang and give the finger to any thoughts of healthier living and self-denial. Plus, some self-righteous food guy once said (something to the effect of) “it’s ok to eat treats as long as you make them yourself.” And that’s the mantra I live by. Although it’s also ok in my books if Pan Chancho or Bread & Butter Bakery make them too.

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Luccarelli Primitivo Puglia

Luccarelli Primitivo 2010, $9.80. LCBO#253856.

Luccarelli Primitivo 2011, $9.80. LCBO#253856.

The new year calls for a return to wonderful $10 wines and I have a good one to share. Primitivo is a favourite varietal of mine, and I love that you can get a great Italian bottle for a good deal.

This one does not disappoint and is very typically fruity and ripe, full bodied, dry but not too dry, and just generally fun to drink. We had it with steak but it was delicious solo too. I think it might also be good with chocolate but it didn’t last long enough to find out.

This vintage is sold out in most major Ontario cities but there are still quite a few bottles in rural Ontario areas. Maybe you’ll luck out and find a few bottles (or maybe you live elsewhere and your wine shop has lots of this gem). And trust me, you’ll want more than one.

Overall, I give this wine 9/10 for taste and 5/5 for value.

Holiday Baking Round 2

IMG_0791This weekend, I spent an afternoon in the kitchen, adding 3 new treats to the baking stockpile. My Kitchenaid mixer got another workout, this time with Whipped Shortbread (dipped in chocolate), and I followed that up with 2 simple but delicious no-bake cookies: Chocolate Haystacks and Butterscotch Confetti squares.

The shortbread and squares are both classics, throwbacks from childhood, just as delightful and addictive as ever. Just today I shared the Butterscotch Confetti with a friend and we discussed what vintage gold they are. As a rule, I’m not a huge square fan as sometimes they are best left in the 1980s, but these are just the right mix of peanut butter and butterscotch, and if you eat them super cold, the texture of the marshmallows is irresistible.

And the beauty of these 3 treats is that they each have so few ingredients, chances are you have them already in your pantry.

Whipped Shortbread
(From Best of Bridge)

Ingredients
1 cup butter, softened
1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup icing sugar
3 squares of semi-sweet baking chocolate

Directions
1. Preheat oven to 325F.
2. Whip the first 3 ingredients together in a stand mixer for 10 minutes, until very smooth and fluffy.
3. Drop by the teaspoon onto a parchment lined cookie sheet and bake for 13 minutes at 325F.
4. Cool the cookies while melting the chocolate. Dip the cookies half in the chocolate and cool in the fridge.

Butterscotch Confetti
(From Company’s Coming)

Ingredients
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup smooth peanut butter
1 cup butterscotch chips
1 bag mini marshmallows

Directions
1. Melt the first 3 ingredients together in a saucepan or the microwave.
2. Stir in the marshmallows and pat into a 9×9 pan.
3. Refrigerate until firm. Cut into squares. These freeze well for later use.

Chocolate Haystacks

Ingredients
1/2 cup butter
1 1/4 cups white sugar
1/2 cup milk
6 tbsps cocoa powder
1 tsp vanilla
1 cup flaked coconut
3 cups quick oats

Directions
1. Boil the first 4 ingredients together in a saucepan for 3 minutes, stirring constantly.
2. Stir in the final 3 ingredients quickly.
3. Drop by the teaspoon onto a cookie sheet and refrigerate until firm. These freeze well for later use.

And finally….Kevin is asking for gingerbread…so perhaps we’ll have adventure #3 in Christmas baking someday soon.

The holidays are here…

December is upon us and I find myself in the mood to stockpile delicious baked treats in my freezer. It may have something to do with my new friend. We met last weekend in America, while doing some browsing of the holiday sales, I came upon a Kitchenaid mixer in need of a good home. This amazing piece of kitchen equipment had never really been on my radar because of the steep pricetag, but I found a deal too good to pass up, and now I have a glossy black Kitchenaid Professional 5 Plus standmixer staring me in the face every time I walk into the kitchen.

I used it earlier this week to whip cream in record time, but have been thinking all week about holiday cookies. I decided to make a favourite, Bird’s Nests with Raspberry Jam, these are always such a nice mix of crispy cookie and sweet-tart jam (pictured in the foreground). Those didn’t seem enough, so I let Kevin pick from Chatelaine’s holiday cookie list, and he wanted Birthday Cake Icebox Cookies (pictured on the left). To be honest, I laughed and assumed they would not be great, but I have to say they are quite tasty. It’s basically a sugar cookie with a bit of crunch from the sprinkles and an extra sweet kick from the icing sugar glaze- a vanilla sugar bomb of a cookie.

To round out the weekend I decided to make some buttertarts. These didn’t need the help of the mixer, but I’ve been missing these in my holiday life for years. There are so many buttertart variations out there, pecan, walnut, raisin, no raisin, corn syrup-based, maple syrup-based, egg-based, etc., etc. All I really want is the kind my mom made when I was a kid: egg-based, with raisins and pecans. The recipe comes from a well-worn Best of Bridge cookbook and is simply buttertart perfection (pictured on the right).

The Best Buttertarts

Makes 12 buttertarts.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/3 cup butter
  • 4 tbsp. cream
  • 1 tsp. vanilla
  • 1 cup seedless raisins
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans
  • 12 tart shells (recipe for 1 pie crust will be enough)

Directions

1. Preheat oven to 375F.

2. Beat eggs in a saucepan, then combine the next 5 ingredients in the saucepan. Boil on medium heat, stirring constantly, for 3 minutes.

3. Sprinkle a few pecan pieces in the bottom of each tart shell, then spoon 1/4 cup of tart filling into each shell.

4. Bake for 15 minutes at 375F. The tarts will be done when the filling is set and the crust is flaky and golden.

Pastry tip: Make 1 pie crust using the Crisco recipe (3/8 cup shortening, 1 cup flour, 1/2 tsp. salt and 4 tbsp. cold water), shape into a ball and chill 30 minutes. Roll out to 1/4″ thickness, cut into 12 circles with a cookie cutter or water glass, and shape into a 12-muffin tin. Chill the tart shells another 30 minutes, then fill with hot filling and bake immediately. The cold crust will turn out extra puffy and flaky.

So, holiday treats to come…perhaps some Butterscotch Confetti, Chocolate Haystacks, Whipped Shortbreads? Stay tuned.

Trapiche Astica Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon

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Trapiche Astica Sauvignon Blanc-Semillon 2011, $7.95. LCBO#359083.

I’m long overdue for an affordable wine post or two, so I thought I would follow up my January tasting of the Trapiche Astica Merlot Malbec with one of their white wines. I was happy with the value of the red, and so this week, whilst browsing the LCBO shelves for new finds under $10, this $8 beauty stood out. Always on the hunt for crisp, dry, refreshingly affordable whites; this one fit the bill.

It is citrusy, a bit herbal and grassy, with a touch of sour green apple, and none of the sweet apple-y tones that tend to turn me off cheap whites. Great alone, also nice with the fish we had for dinner, and would be lovely in a white wine spritzer (a drink preferred by me and cruise loving divorcees the world over). I’m not ashamed to admit my spritzer love- it also happens to be my favourite under $5 drink at a pub- laugh if you will. It’s the perfect hangover prevention recipe since you are forced to hydrate as you imbibe.

I think this little Argentinian treat has dethroned my usual South American Sauvignon Blanc go-to bottle- Casillero del Diablo– which is sadly now $11 and stretching my $10-and-under quest. Perhaps it is time to try a few more of Trapiche’s affordable bottles. Stay tuned!

Overall, I give this wine 8.5/10 for taste and 5/5 for value.

Sunday Night Soup

I looked in the fridge tonight, which is a bit bare at the moment, and saw some lovely local corn that needed a home. A glance in the veggie drawer revealed the makings of soup, which may be a bit much on a hot day, but a nice clear broth with fresh summer veggies seemed right.

I sauteed the onions, celery and carrots in a bit of olive oil, added in 2 handfuls of red lentils for a bit of protein, and got them glossy in the oil. In went 6 cups of water and a healthy sprinkle (1-2 tsp.) of Vegeta (the MSG free kind); chicken or vegetable stock would work too. After about 10 minutes, the veggies and lentils had soften up and I added the corn (cut off the cobs), some canned diced tomatoes and a sprinkle of parsley. That simmered for about 10 minutes, and combined into a wonderfully simple pot of summer flavours. Two bowlfuls for dinner were just the ticket.

Simple Summer Fun: Lemon-Limeade Concentrate

For the first time in my life, I have a Costco membership. I’ve always resisted, having no storage space and only 2 people to buy groceries for. But due to some tire problems on a roadtrip, and Costco saving the day, I found myself back at home for another long hot month of summer with a membership card burning a hole in my pocket.

Last night, on our inaugural grocery shop, I came across a mammoth bag of lemons and limes. They were just so pretty and happy, all jumbled up in their bag. Sunny yellow and tropical green, singing a siren song about homemade lemon-limeade. And I couldn’t resist, even though there were about 20 fruit in the bag (which is kind of an insane number when you have no firm citrus plans). But it was a good impulse buy, as I recently acquired an amazing citrus press from Crate & Barrel (an impulse buy on my roadtrip). So all this following-of-citrus-gut-instincts came to fruition (literally) in my kitchen this evening.

About 20 minutes of squeezing and squashing 5 lemons and 5 limes yielded 1.5 cups of lemon-lime juice. Mix this with 3.5 cups simple syrup (2 parts water, 1.5 parts white sugar, heated to boiling and then cooled), and you’ll have a mason jar full of concentrate, just ready for mixing with still or sparkling water any time you fancy a refreshing summer drink.

I mixed around 1 part of the concentrate with 2 parts water, threw in a handful of ice, and the drink had the perfect sweet-tart ratio you expect, with a hint of lime with the lemoniness. I declare this citrus indulgence a firm success.

Mussels with White Wine and Lemon

Mussels with white wine and lemon.

The past few times I have been at the Loblaw’s fish counter, I’ve eyed their bags of mussels on ice. But every time, I’m not going straight home, or I can’t cook them that night, and the thought of live shellfish in my car or fridge scares me off. But last weekend, we decided to have a mussel adventure and shopped just for that. I have to say that I’m amazed that a bag of mussels that more than serves two people is only $4.99! This will fuel my future motivation to skip the restaurant mark up and make these babies at home.

Letting the mussels filter.

Mussels are pretty easy to prepare, they just need a little TLC to start. Put them in a big bowl of cold water so they filter out some of their sand and debris (you’ll be amazed at how dirty the water gets, so don’t skip that step!). Then, give them a scrub under running water and discard any with broken shells and any ones that are open and don’t close when you give them a firm squeeze. If any of them have a “beard,” pull it off by grasping firmly and pulling toward the joint. I was very dutiful in my scrubbing and quality control, and once they were cooked, they all opened and were edible. A little work up front pays off!

The main flavours.

Once you have filtered, scrubbed and clean mussels, it’s time to pick your flavours. For our first adventure, we stuck to the basics. Some onion, garlic, celery, parsley and lemon peel sauteed together in butter, then deglazed with about a cup and a half of Sauvignon Blanc and the juice of a lemon. Throw the mussels in, put on the lid and let them steam for 6-8 minutes. They are done when the shells have opened. If there are any that haven’t opened after cooking, discard those. But if you pay attention when cleaning them and get rid of any duds up front, there shouldn’t be many that don’t open.

To serve, I squeezed on a bit more lemon juice and sprinkled some fresh parsley for colour. We served our mussels with crusty french bread, great for dipping in the lemony wine sauce. The flavour combos are endless…next time I’d like to try red curry and coconut milk, and maybe something tomato based. Moules Madagascar are a restaurant favourite, so I’d love to figure those out as well. Cheers to affordable homemade fanciness!

Caliterra Bio Sur Reserva Carmenere

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2010 Caliterra Bio Sur Reserva Carmenere, $10.65. LCBO#142711.

The beginning of BBQ season appears to have woken me from my blogging coma. It’s not that I haven’t cooked something tasty, or taken a picture of it, since February. I’ve certainly drank quite a few lovely things as well. But I just haven’t been in the mood to write about it until now. After a long weekend of fabulous weather, we’ve got a fresh new BBQ and I’m full of inspiration. Tonight’s menu included some grilled veggies and cedar planked salmon, but that’s so simple it is hardly worth posting about- the wine was the star of the show.

Kevin was recently given this bottle as a work gift, which always makes me eye it cautiously as I put it in the wine rack. But I shouldn’t have worried, it’s a great affordable bottle, and the smoky oak notes went perfectly with the cedar planked salmon. It is a smooth, dry, full bodied red; dark purple with lots of deep fruit flavours. I plan to grab this one again on the way to a summer get together. Super reasonable price and a great match for anything smoky and flame grilled.

Overall, I give this wine 8.5/10 for taste and 4/5 for value.

Baked Brie with Carmelized Pears

Fresh out of the oven and ready for some crackers.

I was grocery shopping this week, just before a snow storm was scheduled to start, and disaster happened. I needed some raspberries for my go-to baked brie recipe, and they were nowhere to be found. And my pre-snow shopping window was rapidly shrinking! Rather than stress out trying another store, I pulled out my trusty iPhone and googled baked brie. One of the first hits I came upon that didn’t require a crazy amount of ingredients was from Canadian Living. It called for pears, which are nice this time of year, and much easier to find than raspberries. The fate of my girl’s night menu was sealed.

Simple ingredient perfection.

The recipe is so easy- just saute a shallot and a pear in butter, then simmer the mixture in apple juice with a drop of maple syrup and a sprinkle of thyme and S & P. Let that cool at least 10 min, then pile it on top of a round of brie, bake it at 350F for 10-15 min and top with toasted almond slivers.

The sweet/savoury combo of the topping is really nice with the creamy richness of the brie. I love that the ingredients are easy to come by. I think this will be my new fancy cheese recipe for the winter, and I’ll switch back to the raspberry version in the summer.