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.

 

 

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100th Post: Adventures in Prince Edward County

Fabulous view at By Chadsey's Cairns.

To celebrate 3 years of togetherness, Kevin and I took ourselves to Prince Edward County to indulge in fabulous local scenery, food and drink. I’m always amazed that this jewel of a county is only an hour’s drive away, complete with lake views and a quaint ferry ride. It seems fitting that this weekend of gourmand-ness would coincide with the 100th post on La Gourmandesse!

We began the adventure with a wise choice: we stayed 2 nights at the Merrill Inn in Picton, a lovely B&B that knows how to feed and pamper its guests. Our room, in a third floor gable, was cozy and calm, and just what you would expect from a historic inn. They have a restaurant in-house that serves an amazing breakfast spread and gourmet dinners with local wine. We indulged there on our first night, pairing local wines with gazpacho, sauteed calamari, perch and prime rib. We followed that up with house-made peach pie, and declared the evening a locavore’s delight.

Another hilight of the weekend was our wine tour with PEC Wine Tours. We went on an afternoon tour, which was informative and fun, not to mention deluxe due to our limousine ride! The driver and guide, Gilles, was full of great info about the wines of the region, as well as quite a few back stories on the vineyards and personalities of PEC. The tour company’s owner, Bev, also happened to be on the tour that day with some family members for their own enjoyment, and made a lively addition to the day.

My top 3 vineyards of the day were Karlo Estates, By Chadsey’s Cairns and Sandbanks Winery, each for a different reason.

Karlo Estates' multi-purpose barn.

At Karlo Estates, we got to meet the winemaker and owner, Richard Karlo. Tasting wines with him was the best part of my tour, as he is warm, funny and articulate, explaining each wine as we moved through at least 5 tastes. He clearly loves what he does, and it comes through in the character of his wines. We came away with a bottle of the Frontenac Gris Rose, and are on the waiting list for the upcoming Petit Verdot. Can’t wait! I plan to go back soon to soak up the atmosphere and check out the dry stone bridge on the estate.

By Chadsey's Cairns tasting room.

By Chadsey’s Cairns is incredibly picturesque. The land comes complete with a loyalist graveyard, a few historic barns and an apple storage house converted into a wine tasting room. With views of the lake to the south and vineyards to the north, this is a beautifully peaceful place. I enjoyed tasting their wines and discussing them with one of their cheerful tasting staff, but walked away empty handed. It could be that we visited late in the day when my palate was fairly overwhelmed, but nothing grabbed me as something I had to drink again. But I would definitely return to grab a few quiet moments on their deck overlooking the vineyard.

Sandbanks Winery's new indoor/outdoor tasting building.

My other favourite of the day was Sandbanks Winery, one I have visited before. We are already big fans of their Dunes blend and Baco Noir, and had an enjoyable time on the gorgeous patio with one of their fun, young staff. We tried their new Shoreline blends and several others, and came away with a few bottles of Rose, the Shoreline Red, and the Winter Harvest dessert wine. I enjoy Sandbanks’ approachable wines and reasonable prices. It is a bit more commercial than Karlo Estates or By Chadsey’s Cairns, but brings something different to the table. What it may lack in boutique style, it fully makes up for in drinkability and affordability.

We managed to fit in a few other indulgences: lunch at the Tall Poppy Cafe in Wellington and some sweet treats at Miss Lily’s. A trip to Sandbanks provincial park capped off the weekend, and we headed home with 6 local bottles of wine, plenty of good memories, and plans to head back again soon.

 

Happy Days are Here Again

A favourite childhood treat.

After a 2 month blogging hiatus, I am back! May and June hit me with a double take out- my food allergy diagnoses, and a work overload. I was so busy, I didn’t really have the energy to try out new allergy free treats and report back.

But 3 weeks off in Calgary, complete with trips to the mountains, the Stampede, and plenty of time with lovely family and friends, have left me refreshed. And with a suitcase weighed down by my favourite wines! The selection out here is so much better than the LCBO, I can’t help myself when I enter a wine store. I also found a vegan baking cookbook recently, and will have lots of new things to test out in the kitchen.

However, that will have to wait until I return home next week. Until then, I will share a very exciting recent discovery: the fact that Dutch honey cake does not typically contain eggs or dairy! My mom is Dutch, and I have always enjoyed typical comfort foods like honey cake, speculaas (spice cookies), meat croquettes and red cabbage. Today we saw a sign in the neighbourhood that advertised “dutch treats,” so of course we had a check out this new store. I gravitated toward the honey cake section, as that is my absolute favourite, especially the kind with candy on top, and was delighted to discover that Hille brand is largely allergy free, and is even made of rye flour. That’s good for you, right? We’ll just overlook the fact that sugar is the first ingredient.

I’m off to cut a few slices and savour them with a cup of tea….with the aid of a tea towel with windmills on it, naturally.

Cheeky Cherry-Vanilla Cupcakes

Every year around this time, I find myself making cupcakes. Kevin’s birthday is a few days before Valentine’s Day, so some cheerful, pink themed cupcakes fit the bill for both occasions. Last year, I wrote more about why this treat is a must. This year, I came across a cherry cupcake birthday card and used it as my inspiration.

I realize that this is a bit of a repeat post, but I just had to share these delightful, retro-inspired morsels of baked happiness. I have to say that these are the best I have made to date. I think the key was the double dose of icing. I followed my friend Eve’s gooey icing tip and did one layer of icing, let that set up in the fridge, and then layered on some more. It allowed me to use a really soft frosting and still pile quite a bit on top. I don’t really like finicky cupcakes with piped icing, fondant, sprinkles and whatnot. I like the old school kind that your grandmother might have baked you as a kid. Plus, they’re so delicious, I see no need to dress them up. After all, George Clooney looks just as good in jeans as he does in a tux, y’know?

I used a vanilla cupcake recipe from Canadian Living and cut the dozen down to 6, as two people hardly need more than 3 cupcakes each in a weekend, especially at a time when baked goods seem to arrive uninvited at our door and bring their friend candy along for the ride. When I cut the recipe in half, I followed the proportions, but found the batter so thick my mixer could barely move, so I added one more egg and a splash of milk to thin it out. This ended up creating a less sweet cake than I had intended, but once the icing went on, the lack of sugar was actually a good thing. That said, I think there are probably better vanilla cake recipes out there, as I did not really find this one to be “tested til perfect.” However, the cake was dense yet moist, so it all turned out fine in the end.

For the icing, I always eyeball it. I started with a quarter cup of softened butter, and mixed that together with a cup of icing sugar, a splash of maraschino cherry juice and a splash of light cream. I whipped that together with a hand mixer and alternately added icing sugar or liquid until I had a good sized bowl of soft pink icing. It was on the gooey side, on purpose, hence the icing technique I mention above. I made sure to drain the cherries on some paper towel before crowning these little beauties.

Overall, a great texture and flavour combo. The cake is dense but not too sweet and the icing is soft and melty, bursting with vanilla and cherry flavour. It’s a good thing I only made 6 of these.

The Best Chocolate Cake

This cake says "devour me." Can you hear it?

We recently improved out cable subscription, and now get a channel that shows old repeats of great cooking shows, my favourite being Nigella Bites. I love Nigella Lawson, everything she makes looks so wonderful and comforting; watching her is such a treat. It’s lovely to see someone really enjoy life through food, and although I didn’t realize it until now, I think she is probably one of my cooking inspirations. No calorie is ever at risk of being counted in Nigella’s kitchen, with lots of cream, butter and other delicious things finding themselves in many of her recipes.

The other day, I caught her making a chocolate layer cake, and I just couldn’t get the cake out of my head. Luckily, she has a recipe for it on her extremely cute and well organzed website. Her Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake is a slightly different recipe from what I saw on the old show, but this one seems to have been further perfected by her over time.  The only sticky part to making the cake was that because she is British, her measurements are in weights, which really makes much more sense when you think about it. However, North American me does not have a kitchen scale, and is used to using cups for baking measurements. Luckily, I found an on-line measurement converter tool that takes into account the density of different ingredients, and I share my conversions below.

This cake is a dream. I whipped the batter and the icing, and both ended up light and creamy, yet dense, if that makes any sense. There’s an extreme richness and sense of occasion to this cake, so I think it would make a great birthday cake. But it also did nicely as the piece de resistance of my Friday night dinner.

I do have to give a warning with this cake: it will be impossible to just eat one piece, so you may want to have people on hand to share it with immediately. Otherwise this cake will call your name over and over again…..until you’re staring at a plate of crumbs. Puting it in the fridge sort of dulls the cries, but I can still hear it right now.

Old Fashioned Chocolate Cake

The cake:

From nigella.com, measurements and instructions adapted.

  • 1 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1 tsp. baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 3/4 cup soft unsalted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 2 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2/3 cup sour cream
  1. Preheat oven to 350F. Butter 2 round cake pans and lightly flour them.
  2. Using a hand mixer, beat the butter and eggs together. Add in the sugar and get things fluffy and well blended. Finally, add the vanilla and sour cream and ensure that everything is smoothly combined.
  3. Sift the dry ingredients on top of the batter. Stir gently to combine the wet and dry ingredients. The batter will be quite thick.
  4. Spread into the 2 cake pans and bake for 20-25 minutes.
  5. Cool on wire racks, flip the cakes out of the pans after 10 minutes of cooling time.

The icing:

This recipe is my own.

  • 1/4 cup butter, softened
  • 4 squares semisweet baking choclate, softened
  • 1 tsp. vanilla extract
  • 2 cups icing sugar
  • 1/4 cup light cream
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa powder
  1. Soften the butter and chocolate in the microwave, but don’t let it completely melt. Add the vanilla and stir well.
  2. Using a hand mixer, blend in one cup of icing sugar and half the cream.
  3. Continue adding icing sugar and cream until desired consistency is reached. Cocoa powder may be needed if you like things extra chocolatey.
  4. Whip a few minutes more to make sure the icing is velvety smooth and fluffy.

To assemble the cake:

  1. Ensure that the cakes are completely cool before icing them.
  2. Place the first layer of cake on a pretty plate. Spread 1/3 of the icing on the first layer.
  3. Place the second layer on top, and cover the top and sides with icing.
  4. You could add some decorations or fruit, but I didn’t have any, and it looks pretty great as is.

The first piece disappears............

An Early Holiday Feast

It seems fitting that my final post of 2010 be all about la gourmandise. Kevin and I have a week with family and friends lined up for the holidays, so last night we decided to have a holiday party for two. We wanted steak, and then thought up tasty things to go along with it. It ended up being a party in the oven, as everything got roasted at some point.

The baked potato was simple enough, 375F for 45 minutes, remember to poke them a few times, rub the skin with olive oil and just put them right on the oven rack. Crispy skin, fluffy insides. Next, roasted butternut squash wedges, coated in olive oil, sprinkled with some Italian seasoning. They joined the potatoes for 30 minutes.

Then, things got a bit more complicated (and the oven got significantly hotter). The roasted mushrooms with garlic butter needed 450F for about 20 minutes, and the steak needed to get finished in the oven for 5-10 minutes. A juggling of oven racks occurred.

This steak method is perfection when you can’t BBQ (or maybe even better than BBQ’d). Buy a good cut of meat, sear both sides of the steak on the stove, meanwhile saute a few cloves of minced garlic in 2 tbsp of butter, then stir a handful of fresh parsley into it. Once the steak is seared, transfer it to a baking sheet, pour over the butter and parsley mixture, and put it in a 450F oven for 5 to 10 minutes. The steak will be perfectly medium rare, and the butter-parsley combo will remind you of an expensive steakhouse. The roasted mushrooms also help the fantasy.

This meaty, buttery feast was heaven, and was accomplished for less than $20, something I cannot say of any steakhouse. To finish up the extreme decadence, home made brownies with ice cream and chocolate sauce. The best thing about making a feast like this is sitting in your comfies on the couch after, thinking of all the money you saved. And what a fabulous chef you clearly are.

Cheers to the coming week of holiday indulgence!

Big Breakfasts

If I had to pick one that thing that keeps Kevin & I together, it would be our love of breakfast. Breakfast is definitely our glue. I’m not saying there’s nothing else that is important in our lives, of course, but I feel that if we ran into trouble some day, a breakfast like this would be the first olive branch. Kevin makes an egg over-easy that cannot be beat. And obviously, the way to La Gourmandesse’s heart is through her stomach.

Having traveled in Europe and Asia, I can say that the Canadian thing I have always missed the most is bacon and eggs. In the UK, they know how to do it right, and I love the addition of fried tomatoes and mushrooms, and baked beans. But in France, all I could ever think was that baguette with jam was not going to take me very far. And in Asia, I never quite got behind the noodles or rice for breakfast, although I would love some more tropical fruit in my life.

So, today, we made the best of it: some grease to satisfy the traditional cravings, and some fruit salad to tell ourselves that we were paying attention to health. This is best prepared on a Saturday morning when you can lay around and watch PBS building shows and think about great houses that you will probably never own.

Cheers to weekend indulgences with the person who loves you most.

Domesticity

Cooling the pie before adding whipped cream.

This Friday afternoon, as I made a key lime pie for Kevin’s mother’s birthday dinner, I reflected on being a modern woman.  I can identify with feminist theory, and believe that women are powerful creatures who really can achieve anything (given the opportunity).  It seems, however, that this school of thought can sometimes (hopefully unintentionally) devalue traditional female roles. I consider myself to be empowered and equal, but that morning while I was at work, all I could think about was getting home to make my pie.

It’s ironic that a 1950s housewife may have envied my employed and independent life, while her main role was on the homefront.  But all I could think while I used my new hand mixer to make the pie filling was how right it felt, me alone in my kitchen, making a treat that will bring happiness to someone else.  The female role of care taker seems inescapable, and I don’t know if it’s because society has told me I should be that way, but lately I have been wearing this hat well. Earlier this week I bought several yards of lovely blue flowered fabric and sewed new covers for our 2 Poang armchairs and matching foot stools.  I cannot describe the pleasure it gives me to stand in the living room and think “I made this.  It cost next to nothing and it looks damn good!”

The re-covered Poang set.

If only my junior high school Home Economics teacher could see this post! I think she foreshadowed my domestic nature back in grades 8 and 9, because she gave me the “Home Ec Award” both years. I found that a bit embarrassing at the time (although since I did not take Shop class it’s not as though I could have won that award), but now I wish I could dig out my silly little medal and photograph it for this post.  Today I wear the crown of domesticity with pride, perhaps because I have no children to make it a chore for me, and hope to always cherish my stereotypically feminine skills in the kitchen and at my sewing machine.

Cheers to all the other Domestic Goddesses out there!  May we always have the opportunity to have careers, so that while we’re at work we can daydream about all the fun we could be having at home.

Hazelnut Cake with Mocha Cream

In case you haven’t noticed yet, I love baked goods. More specifically cake, and lately, layer cake. There’s something so incredibly indulgent about a layer cake. No one makes a layer cake and then comments that they used whole wheat flour, or applesauce, or some other healthy ingredient that has no business being in cake. Layer cake is all about admitting that you love cake, and probably also the icing or whipped cream that encases it. And hopefully, it’s also a little about making something so beautiful that any person you share it with exclaims at your effort and talent.

And so, I was ecstatic when my friend Trina brought this confection over as her contribution to a dinner party. I know I just posted a chocolate layer cake, but this cake is so drool worthy that I had to share it as quickly as possible. We fed the leftovers to our curling team and the verdict is official—yum!  Trina learned this recipe from a friend in rural Quebec, and I’m so happy that she’s agreed to let me share it with you.

Trina’s cake before we devoured it. So pretty!

Hazelnut Cake with Mocha Cream

Cake:

  • 2 tbsp. flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 4 eggs
  • ¾ cup of sugar
  • 1 cup of hazelnuts (blended to a powder)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Using a mixer, blend flour, baking powder, eggs, and sugar for two minutes. Add hazelnuts and mix on high. Line two round cake pans with parchment paper and butter the sides. Pour batter into cake pans and bake on middle rack of oven for 20 minutes.

The aftermath.

Mocha Cream:

  • 2 cups of whipping cream (35%)
  • ¼ cup of cocoa
  • ½ cup of sugar
  • 1 tbsp. of instant coffee
  • ¼ tsp. salt
  • 2 tsp. vanilla

Blend all ingredients with a mixer on speed two, until cream thickens enough to form stiff peaks. After cakes have cooled divide into halves (totalling four). Spread first half with mocha cream mixture and begin layering until you have a finished product.

An Ode to Girls’ Night

On February 28th, I am officially losing my identity as a single lady, an identity I have enjoyed and exploited over the years. Kevin and I are moving in together….and while I am very excited to be taking a rather adult step forward in our relationship, and also can’t wait to cook in the amazing kitchen in the new place, I’m feeling a bit nostalgic about my old apartment.

Affectionately termed the “Doll House” for its low ceilings and pint-sized rooms, this apartment has been where I have called home for 3 of my 4 years in Kingston.  When I was single and in grad school, it was quite the hub of girl’s night activities.  Being the gourmand I am, I’ve always been happy to have people come and join me for olives, cheese, baguette and bottles of red wine.

This evening I had my friend Evelyne over for dinner to say good bye to the old place.  Evelyne is my only surviving member of the grad school girl crew, having lost Laurel to Singapore, Jung to Montreal, Mary to Hamilton, Noreen to Grenada and Tiziana to Toronto.  My apartment has been the scene of quite a few happenings….birthday celebrations, the gory details of break ups, spilling tales of bad dates and new relationships, the discovery of Jung’s pregnancy (no one will ever forget that night, I am sure) and good byes to many good friends.

And so I am left to conclude that transitions in life are often bittersweet, having to leave behind treasured experiences in order to move forward. I raise my glass to my girl friends and bid farewell to my cozy home, and think of the new adventures I will enjoy in the next stage of life.  Cheers!

The girls in their finest.....out on the town after drinks at the Doll House.