31 December, 2009

Champagne and Truffles

Today's post brought to you by fun things to do to impress others. On tap today is sabering champagne bottles open. Now there is a way to show off at your New Year's Eve event.  Just promise me that you will do it while still sober.

Take one of your bottles of champagne - preferably a cheaper one, just in case - and get it cold. Almost freezing.  So, if you are here in Alberta this means you can just leave it outside for an hour or so. Then you can take one of your solid kitchen knives if you don't have your own sword handy.

With your cold bottle in hand and look for the seam in the glass.  Your target for your knife/sword is just below the lip of the bottle right at the seam. Remove the foil, but you canleave the wire on. With a firm, but not heavy hand slide your blade against the bottom of the lip of the bottle.  Don't hack or whack it. With a really cold bottle the right pressure will simply cause the entire top of the bottle to pop off.  With the pressure of the bubbles no glass falls back into the bottle.  Straight to the enjoyment.

Traditionally, this was done with a sword and on horseback. In the modern world I am thankful for truffled popcorn and a dishtowel to catch the popped cork. We won't be sabering tonight, but we will enjoy bubbly with friends. Thanks for the folks at Sumac Ridge for the demo and opportunity to impress.  And for the champagne/popcorn combo. 

Happy New Year!

23 December, 2009

Potluck Recipes

This morning I had the pleasure of cooking on Breakfast Television. I also had the pleasure of meeting Santa! The segment was on what to bring to a Holiday Potluck.  Break free from Spinach Dip in Sourdough and Sweet Potatoe Casserole!

Here are the recipes for the savoury items - Cauliflower Gratin, Mushroom Pate, and Cranberry Sauce. The desserts can be found here.

Cauliflower Gratin
This is based on a Martha Stewart recipe that I first tried years ago.  To be honest, I never found it again, so I had to make it up the next time I tried it. The original is actually now in The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook: The New Classics. I'm not too far off, just a little bit less of everything. My recipe serves 4-6 as a side (depending on how many other sides you have) or 3 of us at lunch, eating it straight from the pan.

1 head cauliflower
Juice of 1 orange
2 tbsps flour
salt and pepper
6 ounces goat cheese (1 and a 1/2 grocery store logs)
2 tbsps fresh thyme
50-75 grams thinly sliced pancetta or proscuitto

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.  Butter an 8 by 8 casserole dish.
2. Cut cauliflower into bite size pieces.  Steam for 5 minutes.  Set aside.
3. Combine orange juice and water to equal 1/2 cup.  Combine water, flour, 4 ounces (1 log) crumbled goat cheese, and thyme.  Mix well.  Combine with cauliflower and pancetta/proscuitto. Season with salt and pepper. Pour into prepared pan.
4. Bake for 30 minutes, covered with foil.  Bake another 30 minutes uncovered.

Mushroom Pate
One of the bridal showers hosted for me back when Hubby and I were getting married was an in-house cooking class.  Brad Smoliak came to my in-law's house and shared an amazing repertoire of appetizer recipes with all my girlfriends. The mushroom pate he shared has made the rounds of nearly every party any of us now attends.  It takes the creaminess of spinach dip that we all like and turns it around into a richness unlike anything else. Like the recipe for Cauliflower Gratin, I couldn't find the original and made it up as I went.  Today I made it with a surfeit of chanterelles a neighbour left me, but it can be made with any combination of mushrooms.

1 pound finely chopped mushrooms
1 large shallot or 1/2 a small onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1/4 cup cognac, brandy, or whiskey
3 tbsps cream cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp fresh thyme
Worcestershire sauce
Salt and Pepper

1. Combine mushrooms, shallot, and garlic in large frying pan. Drizzle with olive oil and a generous pinch of salt.  Cook over medium heat until the liquid from the mushrooms is evaporated, approximately 10 minutes.
2. Pour in alcohol of choice.  Cook until the liquid is evaporated.
3. Stir in cream cheese until melted in to mushrooms. Add cream, thyme, and a few splashes of worcestershire sauce. Season with salt and pepper. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Cranberry Sauce
Unless you have a nostalgic fondness for the ridges on the wiggling cylinder of canned cranberry jelly I strongly recommend that you commit to making your own cranberry sauce. It is ridiculously easy and the flavours can be customized to your own taste.  Here is the basic recipe, but you can change it up any way your like.  What about using pomegranate juice instead water or orange juice?  How about throwing in some cardamom and cloves? Or, using molasses and ginger with some pears and dried currants?

1 bag fresh or frozen cranberries
1/2 cup brown or white sugar
1/2 water or juice

Combine the ingredients in a small saucepan and cook over medium heat until the cranberries have popped and the mixture is slightly thick.  It will thicken more as it cools. 

Christmas Desserts

It was always my job, from about the age of 13 on, to make dessert for Christmas dinner. So long as I was baking away I was relieved of all other Christmas dinner duties.  As far as I was concerned, that was a good deal, but I'm not sure how my brother and sister felt about it. All would be forgiven as soon as the cheesecake, torte, or even zabaglione came out.  A rich, over the top creation to fill our already overflowing tummies.

Things sure have changed.  Now I do all the work - dinner and dessert - and am stuck with most of the clean-up too.  Not that I'm complaining if it means having a lovely, albeit raucous dinner at home. My desserts have changed too.  Gone are the rich, chocolate affairs.  Those are still good, but after a rich, starchy dinner I've trained myself to want something lighter.

Last year it was Key Lime Pie.  Oh, was it pie!

This year I am opting for Panna Cotta.  Appropriately, the first time I had it was at a Christmas lunch for the office. I have no idea what was served for the rest of the meal, but I can still taste that first bite. While it is not exactly light considering that it is made with loads of cream, the perception is of something lighter.  Still an indulgence, but a slightly more refreshing one.

Panna Cotta is essentially Jello for grown-ups.  Made with cream and flavoured with lovely essences like vanilla, orange, or raspberry is takes jello far beyond any layered, Cool-Whip concoction you've ever had. Oh, and it is so very simple to make.  So simple that after you've made it you wonder why you ever thought gelatin was a scary thing.  Trust me, I can't make Jello, so this was indeed a scary endeavour. But all you do is let the gelatin bloom - a fancy word for get activated by a liquid - and stir it into your sweetened, flavoured cream. Then chill.

In fact, undo your pants, pour yourself a glass of sherry, and definitely chill in the post-feast bliss.

Merry Christmas!

Orange Scented Panna Cotta
(serves 6-8)

3 cups heavy cream
2 oranges
3/4 cup sugar
1 tsp vanilla
3 tbsp unflavoured, powdered gelatin (1 1/2 packets in Canadian grocery store availability)

1. Prepare a mold or 6-8 individual ramekins/bowls/glasses by cleaning thoroughly and letting air dry.
2. Zest oranges.  Stir zest into cream along with sugar and vanilla.
3. Juice oranges.  Add enough water to equal 1 cup liquid.
4. Place a few tablespoons of the juice/water into a small bowl and sprinkle with the gelatin. Let sit for about 5-10 minutes. Mixture will feel like a very firm gelled substance.
5. Heat cream mixture until just simmering and sugar is well dissolved. Remove from heat. If you do not want to see the zest in your finished panna cotta strain through a fine-mesh strainer at this point.
6. Stir in the gelatin to the heated cream mixture until smooth and all the gelatin is dissolved. Pour into molds, ramekins, cups, or bowls.  Chill 10 minutes, stir gently.  Chill 3 hours or overnight.

20 December, 2009

Backseat Adventure - Chopping Your Own Christmas Tree

You would think that after a trip where we got lost in the forest and ran out of gas on the way home in minus 30 I would be smart enough not to want to ever chop down my own Christmas tree ever again. You would think that after not checking the Junior Forest Warden's site and mistakenly assuming that the chopping spot was in the same location you've been to three times to discover it is an hour away we would take the girls and dogs back home. That would be a safe conclusion, but our annual Christmas tree chop is the one holiday tradition that I simply can’t do without.

The tradition is an inherited one from my husband’s family. They would load everyone into the classic Aspen Wagon and trek out to the forest on the last weekend before Christmas. Following a romp through the woods there was the inevitable debate over just the right tree. Was it full enough? Were the branches strong enough for all the lights and ornaments? And, most importantly, was it tall enough?

With more than a few years experience of tree chopping under my belt, and subsequent decorating, I can safely tell you that the answer to those questions in the forest always seem to be no, but they are a resounding yes once you get home.

Your first clue that the tree is just a bit too big is when the branches hang over the sides of the car when you strap it down and you are required to put a fluorescent orange strap to the end of the truck so the cars behind don’t hit it. Oversize Load.

Then you get it home. And it’s at least 6 feet too tall for your living room and you have to remove more than the side table to just find a spot for all the branches. So you cut off about half of what you brought home (from the bottom so you preserve the integral shape of the tree) and plunge into decorating. And if it’s my house you eat cookies and watch Will Ferrell in Elf while you do it.

Even if you do run out of gas and are left running from farm house to farm house to call the other party – hey, this was a few years before everyone had a cell phone – the exuberance of running through the forest on a single-minded mission is worth it. It is worth it for the long-standing and memorable family tradition. It is worth it for the freshest and most local tree you can get. And it is worth it for the hot chocolate and cookies that come at the end of the journey.

Aside from a few new and old favourites I tried the trendy Butterscotch cookies I've been eyeing in my original Five Rose Cookbook. To me, they were a perfect dough and a lovely fireside and snowsuit compliment to our day.

Butterscotch Cookies
(Adapted from Five Roses Flour Cookbook)

1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp baking powder

1. Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy. Add egg and vanilla, mix well.
2. Sift together dry ingredients. Add to wet and mix well.
3. Roll into a log and chill in fridge 1 hour - overnight.
4. Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Slice cookies from log roughly 1/4 inch thick.
5. Bake for 8-10 minutes.

14 December, 2009

The Last Recipe

There is something immensely appealing about the making the last recipe in a cookbook. Don't ask me why, but I got a little giddy seeing that I was making the last recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  The occasion was our Julie/Julia dinner party and I was in charge of dessert.  Because I had not seen the movie I was at a bit of a loss for what to make.  

My boss actually gave me the idea to make this cake.  She just randomly mentioned her daughter making a cake that Julia makes in the movies where you press nuts in to the side of the cake. That's all I had to go on. So I read the the cake section (5 basic cakes takes up about 25 pages) and decided that Reine de Saba was the cake in question.

Nowhere does Julia Child tell you why it is named after the Queen of Sheba, but she does think of it is as a quintessential French Cake.  Me?  I'll just refer to it as chocolate and almond cake. I'll also refer to it as one of my favourite chocolate cakes ever.

Chocolate cake can come in many forms - uber moist, dense and flourless, simply chalky or dry, and sometimes perfectly lovely.  This one falls in the last category. Only a hint of almond touches the slightly creamy but rich texture. With ground almonds and whipped egg whites competing between grounding the cake and making it soar, it really lands somewhere in between in an earthly heaven made of chocolate.

The cake itself isn't the last recipe in the book, it is the chocolate butter icing. Officially, this might be my new favourite icing.  It isn't sweet or terribly rich.  Good butter makes this icing because all it really is is melted chocolate with butter whipped in.  Not much fancier than that. Of course, the recipe makes it seem a lot fancier, but don't be fooled. And don't get lost in the instructions.

You should also not be fooled by the small amount of icing the recipe makes.  It seems like such a paltry amount, but it covers the cake and is a perfect compliment to the cake.  Next time I might use that last recipe as a filling, or a crumb coat on a cake I cover with ganache. Or, I'll just follow the recipe again and make The Queen of Sheba as intended.

Cake decorating is not my forte. I sincerely hope that my girls NEVER ask for a themed cake because it will be a sad, sad birthday for them. I can, however, hold a cake and press ground almonds in to the side.  That is not difficult at all, but worth the mess. I strongly recommend that you do not skip this step.

If I drank espresso it would have been a nice accompaniment.  My mind went to scotch. But after more than a few glasses of wine that night, all I could think about was whether it would be rude or not to take one of the last pieces and skip making my souffle.  Alas, Pierre and Gail's husband made the decision for me.  The souffle was good, but I am still thinking about the cake. I just might open the book to the last page and make it again for Christmas dinner.

08 December, 2009

At Julie's house for Julie/Julia

Eating in a room full of food bloggers and writers is almost as bad as eating dinner with toddlers, except the conversation is far better.  In the interest of the blog, the en mass photography when five bloggers gather for an impressive dinner is somewhat insane.  Sorry, there were only 4 photographers and 1 illustrator at our Julie/Julia themed dinner party on Sunday. Pierre stood back, secretly laughing I think, while the rest of us pushed buttons and tried to make adjustments for the fact that it was close to 7pm when we started eating, er... photographing.

It's a good thing that our vichyssoise was being served chilled.

The occasion of our gathering was ostensibly to celebrate the release of the Julie/Julia DVD today.  In reality, Julie invited us all together to meet, cook, chat, and celebrate. Most of us knew at least one other person there, and I think Julie knew everyone. (She really does know everyone.) Gwendolyn from Patent and the Pantry, Gail from The Pink Peppercorn and her sax playing husband, Pierre of Kitchen Scraps fame with his love, and then Hubby and myself all descended upon Julie with an abundance of butter, cream, wine, and our best stories.

Our instructions were simple: make something from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  We each volunteered a course/dish. There was the vichyssoise from Gwendolyn, surprisingly (to me) rich and actually quite refreshing even though it was minus a billion outside. For dinner itself Julie made Boeuf Bourguignon. Pierre made Ratatouile and the most amazing potatoes ever. Gail spent two days in the kitchen to make a Moussaka unlike anything I've ever had in a neighbourhood Greek joint.  Two days! Oh, and I made Reine de Saba and a souffle but I'll save the details for another day.

To start the night we toasted new friendships with French cider and bubbly.  And we watched old episodes of The French Chef.  Correction, we had it on the TV but were too busy talking. That theme continued for the night.  We were so damn eager at the beginning of the night, dutifully taking photos. Then we sat down to eat.  And drink. And talk.  So there might be one blurry shot of the souffle that Gwendolyn and I made together.

Aside from our critiques and comments about the books, cookbook, and movie (enough about Meryl already and how long exactly should I simmer for?) we talked and laughed.  I'm not telling secrets, but I do know about some tidbits about mascots, child actors, and degrees in sex.  But I'm not talking. In fact, I think I might still be digesting.

04 December, 2009

Blizzards, Banana Cake and Builder Men

December 4th and we're finally getting a good snowfall.  Indeed, it is a full on blizzard of white out there.  The weather folks might call it a winter storm, but we all know that the wicked wind, sandy snow, and a cold that makes you never, ever want to leave your house means that it is a blizzard.  If you're me that means you bake.

Today's recipe comes to you courtesy of The Monster.  When I suggested we bake she informed me that we must bake a birthday cake.  Today, however, is not the birthday of anyone on this house.  That perfect three year old mind remembered that it was her cousin's birthday a few days ago and therefore we must make him a birthday cake.

Now, I have no idea what kind of cake my nephew would have liked, but The Monster decided he wanted a peanut butter cake.  I talked her into a banana cake with peanut butter icing. So we dug through the cookbook shelf and found a recipe for banana cake in the Favorite Family Recipes of Holy Cross Parish cookbook. It's one of those cookbooks where everyone submits the pride and joy of their kitchens. That means it is really hit or miss depending on the recipe instructions. We got ourselves a hit here!

The girls got aproned up, we turned on the Toopy and Binoo Christmas album (oh, thank-you Grandma), and we set ourselves up for a messy old time.  We mashed bananas, creamed butter and sugar, sifted flour, and licked, licked, licked everything. You know, I'm convinced that if I put liverwurst in the Kitchen Aid they would devour it.

This is your basic cake recipe.  There isn't anything fancy about it except for the fact that it calls for the baking soda to be added to the wet ingredients. It bakes in a classic 9 by 13 pan.  In reality it is a simple weeknight dessert.  It isn't overly sweet and it is wonderfully moist, with a good crumb as they say.

While the girls napped I set to making the icing. I'll be honest, it was a bit of a challenge because it turns out I need a few groceries. Did I mention there was a blizzard going on? So I hoped for the best with the bit of peanut butter and icing sugar I had.  I had my fears, but damn, it is good icing! Not at all sweet and as creamy as it can be when you only have natural peanut butter in the house. And just the right amount for a sheet cake.

This is the kind of cake you want after trudging home from a day at school (or work).  It is a cake that makes you feel loved.  It is a cake that mom can feel pretty good serving and also enjoy with a cup of tea.  Ahem, let me refresh my cup.

And tonight it will also be our dessert as we treat our builder men, as The Monster calls them, who've been helping Hubby out with digging, pouring concrete, and framing in the basement. Sunday dinner on Friday night.  Mayhem, new friends, and cold weather comfort at the table.

Banana Cake with Peanut Butter Icing
Makes 1 9x13 pan

Banana Cake
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
2 cups flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
2 large, ripe bananas
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp baking soda

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F and butter and flour a 9x13 pan. 
2. Cream together butter and sugar until fluffy.
3. Add eggs, one at a time, and vanilla, mixing well after each addition.  Scrape down sides.
4. In a separate bowl sift together flour, baking powder, and salt.  Set aside.
5. Mash bananas well.  Combine with milk and baking soda.
6. Add 1/3 of the banana mixture of the butter/sugar/eggs.  Add 1/2 flour mixture.  Continue alternating wet and dry ingredients, ending with wet. Mix until smooth.
7. Pour into prepared pan and bake for 45-50 minutes. Let cool completely.

Peanut Butter Icing
1/4 cup softened butter
1/2 cup peanut butter
2 cups icing sugar
5-6 tbsp milk

1. Cream together butter and peanut butter.
2. Add the icing sugar, 1/2 cup at a time.  Alternate with a tbsp of milk until all the sugar is incorporated.  Mix well until light and fluffy.  If you want a softer icing add a touch more milk.
3.  Frost cake and enjoy.