Weekend in the County

I was recently the lucky recipient of a gift certificate for Countylicious 2014, courtesy of The County. It arrived and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was for East & Main, a restaurant in Wellington I had wanted to try before but had never matched up with its somewhat limited hours.

A weekend adventured ensued, complete with Saturday wine touring, a Countylicious dinner, and a fantastic Sunday breakfast at the Tall Poppy Cafe.

We spent our Saturday afternoon snaking through the wineries of Hillier, a region with too many options to cover in one afternoon, so we picked ones we had yet to visit. We took home bottles from Harwood, Hillier Creek, Stanners and Trail Estate. Two highlights were chats with wonderful wine making ladies at Harwood and Stanners, which I found was the most fun part of the tasting. I do appreciate that wine makers might want a Saturday off, but tasting is much more enjoyable with passionate people whose own livelihood is tied up in their product. The complimentary cheese pairings at Harwood and the crackling wood stove made it the best stop of the day- it is a great place to visit in the colder weather. I’m most excited to try the Harwood Pinot Noir & St. Laurent blend we took home, and the county Pinot Noir from Stanners.

We spent our evening at East & Main, where the Countylicious menu did not disappoint. $35 pp for 3 courses was very reasonable, and even better when you have a gift certificate. The service was very competent and efficient, and the place was hopping the whole time we had dinner, with a new crowd coming in as we finished. The menu was a bit different than what was on the Countylicious website, but the selection was still really good. For the appetizer I would recommend the french onion soup if they have it- very classic salty broth and cheesy broiled top. The scallop dish is decent too. Perfect November food, especially on a rainy and windy evening. The mains we had were good but not great- I wish I had gotten the lamb, as the veal scallopini I ordered was actually more like schnitzel, and the steak frites was pretty ordinary. But they won me over with the dessert- the banana and caramel bread pudding was really incredible. I can still taste it! Also the apple/berry crumble was nice- but I think the bread pudding was the star of the whole meal. We paired the meal with a bottle of Sandbanks Baco Noir, which matched the meaty main courses well, and added some coffees with dessert. Overall- really good meal with great service too- I will be back (if my timing matches their hours again!).

I tried to book us a B&B that was walkable to downtown Wellington, but everything I tried was either closed for the season or full for the weekend, even booking weeks in advance. I think it was a combo of small inventory + others with Countylicious weekend plans. We ended up staying at a guest suite in one of the small businesses in Wellington. I wish I could give them a shout out, but unfortunately the suite smelled so strongly of second hand smoke, coupled with dog hair around the suite, it really ruined our stay and I can’t recommend them. Allergy disaster! To avoid spending too much time there, we wandered over to the new Drake Devonshire hotel post-dinner. Some of the pluses: amazing waterfront property and neat architecture. The minuses: overly kitschy hipster decor (read: trying way too hard), roaring noise from dining room/bar and poor ventilation in the dining area- you will smell like whatever is cooking. What I hear about the Drake in general is that it is fine but has overpriced rooms and food, geared to a Toronto crowd. Personally, I’m looking for authentic experiences when I am in the County and I don’t see myself hurrying back here. We didn’t even get a drink as planned on Saturday evening, the bar was so loud and smelled so strongly of the kitchen, to pay $15 for a cocktail seemed masochistic. Also- dining host was not attentive (read: could not be found) and front desk staff could barely rip her eyes away from her laptop to acknowledge my existence. Perhaps a Toronto attitude has also been imported? We sat a bit in the lobby, the “eccentric” furniture was surprisingly comfortable. I think the only good reason to come back here would be to enjoy the waterfront in the summer- they have one of the only hotel properties in the County that really maximizes the beach and water.

I woke up early Sunday morning, eager to get the heck out of that smoker’s haven, and we were at the Tall Poppy before most of their staff had started their day! I love that cafe- the food is good, the atmosphere is great and the people are even better. We chowed down on the breakfast menu, honestly, everything I have ever eaten there is good, and given their 7am-3pm daily hours I eat there pretty well every time I am in the area. Also good coffee and lovely baked goods- you will not be disappointed! And it is licensed with very fair prices. It’s probably a good thing I don’t live close enough to show up daily.

The only downside to our early start on Sunday was that no stores or wineries were open by the time we were heading out, so instead of a slow meander home through Bloomfield and Picton, we had a speedy trip back home, complete with a stop for cheap gas on highway 49.

So, the moral of the story is that you have until November 23, 2014 to get in on Countylicious, and if you miss that, remember that Wassail runs the last 2 weekends of November and the first weekend in December. Plenty of time to do a little Christmas shopping in the County! There’s a bus tour every Saturday during Wassail for $15 and you just might find me back again in a few weeks.

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Better than a Bakery Cinnamon Buns

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Fresh from the oven and waiting for some glaze.

I like to mark a new year by posting the most un-diet thing possible. Last year’s new year post featured a mind-blowing chocolate cake. This year I would like to share a new baking adventure that created the most lovely cinnamon buns that have passed my lips. These yeast-dough buns are fluffy-yet-dense, lightly sweet so as not to compete with the cinnamon and sugar, and bake up into monster buns that you think you won’t finish but you absolutely will.

I have certainly indulged in Cinnabon buns, bakery buns, been served cheater “Land of Nod” buns that I find too sweet with no spiral fun, but I have never made them myself. I can’t believe it took me so long! These will be a brunch staple for sure, the shear impressiveness of a pan of these right out of the oven begs for an audience.

I used Michael Smith’s Cinnamon Rolls recipe and followed it exactly. I wouldn’t change a thing, either. The glaze to finish (not pictured) is the final touch- it’s not too sweet and gives just the right finish. My KitchenAid mixer was a big help with this one, although you don’t need to mix with the dough hook for too long. The dough comes together fairly fast and is a pleasure to knead into a smooth, elastic ball. It rose quickly (hint: I put it in my warm utility closet to speed the rise time) and rolled out like a dream. Almost like play-doh for adults. And it tastes better. I think you could make the dough the night before, let it rise and then store in the fridge to be ready for the morning, since it does take a couple hours from scratch.

Cutting the roll for baking.

Cutting the roll for baking.

Best kneading ever.

Best kneading ever.

And if you’re intimidated by yeast, kneading, rising time, etc., etc., don’t be! I have no real dough experience beyond pizza dough, and this was a dream. You’ll feel so accomplished after baking these, like Laura Ingalls Wilder would be impressed, I dare you to make them- and then tell me about it- or invite me for brunch.

Happy Thanksgiving!

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It is a beautiful fall weekend in southern Ontario, perfect for a Thanksgiving holiday. Before I could go outside to enjoy it, I baked up this beauty, a Pecan Pie for tomorrow’s family feast.
Happy feasting everyone! I hope a slice of your favourite pie makes it to your plate this weekend.

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.

Holiday Baking!

Bird's Nests with Raspberry Jam

I am back in my childhood home for the holidays, and could not resist making my favourite childhood Christmas cookie on a lazy afternoon. There’s something so lovely about getting out all the supplies that haven’t changed much in 20+ years, including the 1970s Tupperware flour and sugar containers, and using the same old oven to make a comforting and familiar treat. Thanks to some baking skills that have improved over the years, I think these were the best batch ever.

They go by many names: Bird’s Nests, Thumbprint cookies, Polish tea cookies, and have many variations: rolled in coconut, pecan or walnut pieces, or plain, filled with chocolate, cherries or jam.  The combos are numerous, but I think my mom’s way is the best; rolled in crushed pecans, and filled raspberry jam. The toastiness of the pecans, the buttery crumbly cookie, and the sweet-tart raspberry jam are delightful, and cannot be matched. I love this cookie so much I am ignoring my egg allergy for a day or two, because there would be no egg-free way to recreate this cookie perfection.

They are so simple, just a few ingredients that are probably already in the pantry, and they bake up crisp and begging for a jam centre. A wonderful way to kick off the holiday break.

Pecan coating assembly line.

Bird’s Nest Cookies with Raspberry Jam

Ingredients

1/2 cup salted butter, softened

1/4 cup packed brown sugar

1 large egg, separated

1 cup flour

1 small package crushed pecans

good quality raspberry jam

Directions

      1. Preheat the oven to 325F.
      2. Cream butter and sugar until smooth, then mix in egg yolk. Stir in flour until a crumbly dough forms.
      3. Using your hands, form one inch balls from the dough, you will get about 15 balls total.
      4. Give the left over egg white a quick whisk in a small bowl, and pour a small amount of crushed pecans in a separate bowl.
      5. Dip each ball first in the egg white and second in the crushed almonds, rolling around to coat.
      6. Place the rolled balls on a cookie sheet and press an indentation in each cookie using your index finger or a thimble.
      7. Bake for 10 minutes, remove from oven and re-press the indents. Bake another 15 minutes. Cookies should have toasty bottoms but still be slightly soft. They will firm up as they cool.
      8. Once cool, cookies can be frozen for later, or filled with jam for serving immediately.

 

 

Adventures in Pie Making

Apple Pie

The crispness in the air has me thinking of fall, and all the great things you can bake once the summer is over. A friend was baking apple pies this week, and while I’m too far away to try a slice of hers, she made me keen to try my hand at pie making.

I have never made my own pastry before, always feeling like it’s too finicky to tackle alone. My mom makes a great pie crust; in fact many of my favourite childhood memories are of pie making with her. I would sit across the counter, make mini pies from the scraps, and often eat quite a bit of the dough. I’m not sure what was so tasty about raw pie dough; I tasted a piece today, and I must say the appeal has worn off!

When it came to crust making today, I decided to go for shortening as a base because I really dislike both the idea and taste of lard. I thought about just following the Crisco box, but instead did some googling and came across a Canadian Living recipe for “Perfect Pastry.” It uses both butter and shortening, as well as some vinegar, egg yolk, salt and cold water. It was fairly simple to mix together, and came together into a dough without much effort at all.

The rolling was not quite as easy! I rolled the crusts between 2 pieces of parchment to try to decrease the mess and sticking, but the paper just moved all over the counter. Luckily Kevin was around to hold the parchment still. I managed to get 3 crusts out of a recipe for 2, and so my 1 pie became a couple.

First I made an apple pie- 4 peeled and sliced Gala apples tossed with 1/2 cup brown sugar, 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 1 tbsp lemon juice, mixed together and surround by pastry goodness. I baked it for 15 minutes at 425F and followed that up with 45 minutes at 350F.

Then I made a pecan pie with my leftover crust. I found a recipe that didn’t call for corn syrup, an item that I consider fairly useless in the world of modern cooking. This pie filling recipe can be found here. I baked it for 10 minutes at 400F and then 35 minutes at 350F.

Both pies smelled heavenly baking- the cinnamon in the apple and the vanilla in the pecan wafting through the air and taunting me. Unfortunately for me, the pies are for company, and not afternoon snacks. Let’s hope they last!

Pecan Pie