Autumn Reflections III

Invigorating.

Autumn air cools blushing cheeks;

I respire with thanks.

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Harvesting Warmth

Truth be told, this month’s Canadian Food Experience Project creation was a last-minute decision. My life, at present, is in a state of immense change and these changes happen to have created an inordinate amount of busyness. I was travelling for work earlier this week, and on Wednesday the 6th, I suddenly realized my post was due the next day. &%*$!

So, my creation and post may not hold the same amount of emotion and memoirs as is customary for my writing, and certainly I didn’t put the same level of advanced thought and planning into this one. But, as I rode the train home on Wednesday night, I knew one thing for sure: my food creation had to arouse a feeling of warmth in me and in those I would be feeding.

I love autumn. It is a time of year when many marvelous things happen outside our homes. I wrote a poem called Autumn Symphony about the beauty of fall a few weeks back, because for me, autumn is a deeply evocative time. In Ontario, we see an incredible kaleidoscope of colour that paints the leaves of the trees amazing hues of orange, red and yellow. And, as plants die off, the scent emitted reminds me of roasted winter vegetables. The air becomes crisp, but is not yet uncomfortably cold, and so a brisk walk doesn’t require heavy outdoor clothing and is so enlivening. Despite the fact that autumn is often themed a season of death and decay, I find it to be exhilarating and beautiful, because plants or their component parts must die off to leave room for magnificent new growth, come spring. Similarly, it is at a time in my life when painful and challenging change is occurring, that I hold onto great hope that the difficulties will give way to great joy, opportunity and beauty.

After an active day outdoors, perhaps a vigorous hike amongst those exquisite fall colours, there is nothing like curling up by a fire with a good book or even better, with great company. A hot glass of mulled apple cider, four bare feet under a wool blanket and a tender embrace all make hearts and souls warm, too. These are some of the things I think of when I imagine an ideal autumn day.

When thoughts then turn to fall food and the harvest in Ontario, there are a few products I think of: apples, root vegetables, and squash of various kinds. However, there is one squash that particularly speaks of autumn to me, and that is the pumpkin: those jolly, brightly coloured, rotund squash which all North American children fondly associate with Hallowe’en. They come in so many shapes and sizes and with lovely variation and character. I love the diversity of uses for pumpkins: from roasting, to pie, to soup and even delicious spiced, roasted pumpkin seeds. As a child, I used to eat the raw pumpkin flesh when we carved our Hallowe’en pumpkins. There is something very special about waltzing through a pumpkin patch to pick your very own, unique specimen amongst hundreds.

So, when I thought about this month’s challenge, I knew I had to include pumpkin. What’s more, I was certain the recipe I chose to create had to invoke a sense of warmth and richness. I first thought of pumpkin soup, but I make soups a lot and thought I would challenge myself with something different. I considered pumpkin ice cream, but realized it wouldn’t quite capture the warmth I was going for. And then it hit me – crème brûlée! And so, this month, I chose to roast some lovely pie pumpkins, but rather than make pie, I made spiced pumpkin crème brûlée. I feel it turned out well, and those I shared it with certainly seemed to enjoy it. This was especially true for my exuberant 2 year old son, Elijah, who practically licked his ramekin clean and then emphatically, asked for more. An excellent critique indeed!

    Spiced Pumpkin Crème Brûlée

Ingredients:

• 1 medium pie pumpkin or enough to make 1 ½ cups puree once baked
• 1 teaspoon pure vanilla
• 1 teaspoon cinnamon
• ½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
• ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
• ¼ teaspoon ground allspice
• 2 cups (500 mL) whipping cream
• 8 egg yolks
• 1/2 cup granulated sugar
• 1/2 cup packed brown sugar

Directions:

• Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

• Cut pumpkin in half and scoop out the guts. (Reserve seeds to roast later if desired!)

• Set cut side down on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Bake for about 45 minutes or until fork tender (but not overly soft)

• Remove skin from baked pumpkin and put flesh into a blender or food processor. Process until the purée is smooth. If your particular pumpkin is quite dry and isn’t processing properly, add some water, a tablespoon at a time, to assist. Be careful to only add what is necessary to get it puréed, as you do not want your purée to contain too much water.

• In a large bowl, combine pumpkin purée, vanilla, and spices; set aside.

• In small saucepan, heat cream until steaming.

• Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk egg yolks with granulated sugar.

• Slowly and gradually whisk in cream so as not to cook yolks. Whisk this mixture into pumpkin mixture.

• Place eight 175ml ramekins in a large pan with sides. Pour custard mixture evenly into ramekins. Pour enough hot water into the pan that it reaches halfway up the sides of the cups.

• Bake in the center of the oven for about 35 minutes, or until the edges are set but the center still jiggles slightly.

• Remove from water and let cool on wire racks.

• Cover and refrigerate until chilled and set, about 2 hours. Alternatively, you can make these ahead and refrigerate for up to 2 days, covered.

• When ready to serve, remove custard cups from fridge about an hour before serving to warm to at or near room temperature.

• Sprinkle with brown sugar (lumps removed), and use brûlée torch to gently heat sugar until it bubbles and turns dark amber. If you don’t have a torch, you can carefully broil on the top rack of your oven until the sugar turns this same dark amber colour.

The colour and flavour of the resulting dessert is enough to make anyone feel like they’re receiving a big warm hug. Enjoy!

brulee

Note: After separating all those eggs, you’ll have 8 egg whites leftover. Of course there are many uses for them, but I opted to make some simple meringue cookies as well.

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The Canadian Food Experience Project is Valerie Lugonja’s call to Canadian Foodies and Bloggers alike to unite on the 7th day of each month and creatively discover and share Canada’s unique culinary voice. You can read more about this exciting project here.

Preserving Sweet Autumn

Quince

Over the weekend, my kitchen was filled with an intensely gorgeous floral, fruity aroma. This was because, on my countertop, sat a bowl of quince apples waiting to be played with.

The quince is a curious specimen of apple; it looks as if it is having a bit of an identity crisis. I think quince look a bit like a cross between an apple, a pear and a bit of lime. They can be purchased during a very small window in the fall, but they are not necessarily easy to find. They are indeed grown here in Ontario, but you may only be able to find them in higher end markets and in small quantities. Apple trees, and therefore quince trees, are members of the rose family. This, in part, explains the floral bouquet the fruit emitted in my house. Despite the sweet scent they emit when raw, they are not ideal for eating this way; they are quite hard, tart and astringent. With all this, they are not a common crop and thus are also fairly pricey.

In my childhood, quince apples were the foundation of a once-annual treat, prepared by my paternal grandmother. Although years have passed since I last consumed quince candy, I can taste it clearly with my imagination. This treat forms the basis of my post for this month; another Hungarian delicacy that brings back many memories from my Canadian childhood, and moreover uses local produce. Hungarians usually call this delicacy birsalma sajt which translates to “quince cheese”. My guess is that it’s the thick, jelly-like consistency of the candy that gives it this name. It is similar to the Spanish treat membrillo.

When I thought about this month’s preserving challenge, I was again a bit stumped. Other than dehydrating, I have not done much typical preserving. I love eating preserves, particularly savory ones, but haven’t tried my hand at it yet. I wasn’t much inspired by the idea of making jam or jelly, but I knew I wanted to make something inspired by autumn; something sweet, rich and fresh tasting. I also felt I should carry on the theme of including inspiration from my childhood and heritage. The idea of quince candy jumped to my mind and I considered carefully whether I could indeed call this a preserve. It is not dehydrated, frozen or jarred. Preserving is, by definition, a process of extending the life of a food, and quince candy does keep for about 6 months in an airtight container, or longer in the fridge. In addition, the Canadian tradition of preserving assumedly was born of the concept of sustaining ourselves during long, cold winters. This candy provides a delicious treat to warm the soul on a cold winter’s day, though I have great doubts about whether this candy will actually remain uneaten for more than a few days.

For those of you who do enjoy preserving jams and jellies, quince apples are a winner because they are naturally high in pectin. Also, the finished product boasts an esthetically gorgeous amber colour.

As a child, we ate the quince candy as a dessert treat, however it pairs nicely with strong cheese as an amuse-bouche or even as part of a main course alongside roasted meat.

Quince Candy

Ingredients
• 12 quince apples, washed, cored and roughly chopped
• 1/4 cup water
• 1/4 cup lemon juice
• Sugar (several cups, quantity varies as per below)

In a medium saucepan, combine quince, water and lemon juice. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to very low and simmer, stirring occasionally, until it takes the appearance of grainy applesauce.

Now, you should pour the purée through a sieve or food mill to get a smooth sauce. I did things a little differently because I have a Vitamix, a very powerful blender. I blended the sauce, skin and all, as I felt I could enhance the flavour of the purée while keeping it smooth.

Quince puree

Pour the purée back into the saucepan and for every cup of strained purée, add 1 cup sugar and mix together. Cook over low heat, stirring frequently, for 2 hours or until very thick and amber in colour. A spoon drawn through the puree should leave a firm track.

Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper and pour the hot purée into the pan. Cover with another piece of parchment paper and use your hands or a spatula on top to even out. Leave covered and let cool completely. Invert the pan onto a flat surface and remove the parchment paper.

Cut the candy into small squares or use cookie cutters to cut out shapes. It is so sweet the pieces are best cut quite small. Transfer the pieces to a clean piece of parchment paper and allow to dry for up to 3 days. Turn the pieces regularly until no longer sticky. Sprinkle with granulated sugar if desired and place in candy papers or muffin cups. Store in an airtight container in a cool, dry place for up to 6 months or refrigerate if desired. The candy tastes quite nice chilled as well.

quince candy

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The Canadian Food Experience Project is Valerie Lugonja’s call to Canadian Foodies and Bloggers alike to unite on the 7th day of each month and creatively discover and share Canada’s unique culinary voice. You can read more about this exciting project here.

Autumn Symphony

The end of a season is upon us,
One instinctively yoked to death and decay.
Yet, lavishness exists here;
A great symphony of loveliness and delicateness,
Perceived by the rapt observer.

Rushing autumn wind in ears,
Multiplied by the momentum of the cyclist.
Whistling softly, cooling perspiring skin.
The scent of dying chlorophyll wafts softly,
Coupled with the aromas of the harvest:
The tripartite sweetness of corn, soy and hay.

This peaceful country road
Is enfolded by furiously red, overbearing Sumacs.
Spinning wheels whir and hum,
The constant noise punctuated melodiously
By flittering leaves in the wood beyond.
A falcon perches lightly, eyeing its prey.

This symphony of scent, sight and sound,
Transforms this season of death
Into a period of glory and splendor.
A mainspring of rest and renewal,
For anyone willing to seize it.