Fresh Inspiration

Spring is here, though in Ottawa it is still cooler than most of us would like it to be. Still, I’m grateful for the sunshine and even the showers that washed away the snow and salt and are bringing us spring flowers. The Byward Market is blooming into its spring/summer look, with farmers beginning to set up their booths. Last week, some delightful fresh herbs could be purchased there.

Spring is a time of brightness, fresh scents and the return of vibrancy. It is a period of renewal, light, life and hope. Springtime lends itself to considering new opportunities and to challenging all that may seem impossible. My move to Ottawa from Vancouver Island occurred around this time nearly four years ago, and I remember how wide I smiled when I saw the beautiful spring bulbs of Parliament Hill. I knew there held some exciting promises for me in my new home; little did I know what the next four years would bring.

This month’s CFEP theme is the Canadian garden. I don’t currently have my own garden, and in fact, I’ve not grown any food plants other than in containers for a few years. I’ve been greatly inspired by family gardens in my life, and I wrote about this in my September post when I reflected on poignant food memories.

As has become habitual for me in this project, I was left considering what I might write about and create, only a couple of days before this post was due. I’m always a bit of a strategic procrastinator: I leave things until late, but not usually because I dread the task or am lazy. On the contrary, I wait until passion and inspiration seize me, and then I run with it.

 
Yesterday, I was reflecting on this month’s theme with a friend, and remarked to him that through this project, I’ve discovered that as much as I truly enjoy cooking, I love baking even more. I really savour the process of creating baked goods for others’ enjoyment. I feel a sort of artistic connection to inventing and designing desserts. I also derive a lot of peace and relaxation from baking in silence; the slow, systematic process of combining ingredients, applying both literal and symbolic warmth to them, and then constructing the final product….Baked Therapy.

 
So, my friend suggested I make lavender shortbread. It was an awesome idea, but I’ve made lavender shortbread and sugar cookies countless times, and lavender isn’t in bloom yet. Nevertheless, his suggestion did stimulate me in the way all good inspiration should: to consider the things I love and derive enjoyment from and to create something beautiful and unique. With his idea as my starting point, I decided that I would in fact use shortbread as my foundation; one of my most favourite treats. I then thought about the container gardening I have done over the last few years, and my primary product: fresh herbs. Finally, I thought excitedly about the approaching summer season and one of nature’s best gifts: fresh berries. All of this, and lots of love, were brought together to make this month’s creation: Mint-Strawberry Shortbread Sandwiches, the esthetics of which were slightly inspired by a timeless French confection: the Macaron.

 
Mint-Strawberry Shortbread Sandwiches

 
Fresh Mint Shortbread Cookies

 
~ 1.5 cups butter, softened
~ 1 cup cornstarch
~ 1 cup icing sugar
~ 2 cups all-purpose flour
~ 1 ½ tablespoons fresh mint, very finely chopped

Mix together dry ingredients. Add softened butter and use wooden spoon or hands to combine until smooth. Place in fridge for 30 minutes if you used your hands and the dough is too soft.

 
Preheat oven to 300 degrees.

 
Roll out dough on smooth, floured surface to about ¼ inch thick. Use small round cookie cutter to cut out circles and place on cookie sheet about an inch apart.

 

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Bake for about 13-15 minutes or until edges/bottoms get just golden. Do not overbake. Remove from oven and cool completely.

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Strawberry-Mint Filling

(Note: this makes a good quantity of purée, probably about 250ml, which is way more than you need for the recipe. I then freeze it for later use. If you don’t wish to have extra, cut the recipe in half)

 
~ 4 cups fresh strawberries, stems removed and coarsely chopped
~ 2/3 cup white sugar
~ 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
~ 6 fresh mint leaves (or more if you desire)

 

Place strawberries and mint leaves into food processor. Process until very smooth.

 

Pour purée into medium saucepan and add sugar and lemon juice. Heat over low-medium and simmer until purée becomes darker and thickened, about 30 minutes. Stir frequently to ensure it doesn’t burn on the bottom.

 

Remove from heat and allow to cool completely, either on the counter or in the fridge. May be made a day or two in advance.

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Construction

When cookies and filling are cooled, create sandwiches by placing about a ½-1 teaspoon of filling on top of one cookie and placing another on top. Voilà!

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I cut out my cookies about 1.5 inches wide, which produced about 40 sandwiches.

The finished cookies have such a beautiful, sweet and summery fragrance. I hope these cookies put a little spring in your step. 🙂

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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 <a href=”http://www.acanadianfoodie.com/the-canadian-food-experience-project/the-candian-food-experience-project/”>here</a&gt;.

Local Deliciousness

It’s April. I can’t believe it’s already April. I’m glad it’s April, but my goodness, how time flies.

 
I hate to disappoint or to be unable to follow through on something I’ve committed to. In joining the Canadian Food Experience Project, the task was relatively simple from the start. Every month, tackle a previously established challenge involving a food-related theme, write about it and post a recipe. With a month between challenges, such a task should be very achievable. But, as those who know me can attest to, I often take on too much, which sometimes leaves the simplest tasks to be accomplished at the very last minute. And while I’m pretty adept at multi-tasking and accomplishing said tasks at the last minute, throw a nasty virus my way, and my procrastination-based plan is thoroughly foiled.

 
This month’s challenge was to write about a local producer or grower. Again, I found myself a week before the post was due, wondering who I should write about. I immediately came up with an answer and an inspired idea. However, the local grower I wished to interview wasn’t able to honour such a short notice request to visit, and so I had left myself with nothing to write about. And, being quite ill at present, I’m sorry to say I don’t have the energy or creativity to come up with something new and do the leg work involved.

 
I thought about what could inspire me to write and also lead to a fairly low-effort recipe. I considered two of the most important things in my life: my son, and my friends. Both of those ideas also lead me to think about comfort.

 
It seems a lot of my CFEP posts have ended up being sweet, baked recipes, and this month’s is no different. I swear to my readers that I really can cook too, but I suppose in some ways I get a tad more personal enjoyment out of baking and sharing desserts or sweet treats. I’m aware that it’s a bit of a cop-out to use the same key ingredient this month as I did last month, but it fits the bill for both a seasonal, locally produced ingredient and a comfort food: maple syrup. I am also happy to share the local maple producer whose farm we have visited every year since moving to the Ottawa area, and where we have enjoyed many a pancake breakfast and walk amongst the maple trees: http://www.sandroadsugarcamp.com/

 
I have made some wonderful friends since coming to Ottawa. I don’t have a large group of friends, but I have been blessed with a few, very close and trusted friends in my life. I have always believed in quality over quantity, especially as life gets fuller and one can only share time with a finite number of people. One of the key ingredients in a strong and lasting friendship is comfort; the ability to be oneself, authentic, without judgment, and also knowing our friends are truly there for us.

 
This past Saturday, I spent the evening with a wonderful girlfriend, enjoying intimate conversation over beautiful food and wine, and all with great ease. Then, Sunday morning, I was fortunate to spend the morning with another close friend of mine, having breakfast and walking along the Rideau river, watching the spring ice flows. During our walk, I remarked to him just how nice it was to have such a comfortable friendship. Both of these friends left me with a real feeling of contentedness, and I left them with a jar full of the treat described below.

 
The recipe I am sharing this month is one that I would consider comfort food, for a few reasons. First, it is naturally sweet. Second, it is high in good fats. Third it is high in protein and fibre. Fourth, it smells wonderful when baked and fills your home with a hearty, nutty and spicy aroma. Fifth, it can be eaten plain or accompanied by a number of other comfort foods. Sixth, it can be easily shared with friends. And finally, and most importantly, it tastes delicious!

 

This month, I give you my recipe for homemade granola.

 

Notes:
• This recipe is also vegan and gluten-free.
• This recipe can be easily multiplied to make large batches which store well in air-tight containers.
• You can substitute or add other nuts, seeds and dried fruit as desired, but keep the ratio of oats to additional ingredients relatively the same.

 

Maple-Almond-Cranberry Granola

 
2 cups large-flake oats
½ cup chopped almonds
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup shredded, unsweetened coconut
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/8th teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons melted coconut oil (or avocado oil – this worked well in my latest experiment)
½ cup pure maple syrup
1 ½ teaspoons pure vanilla extract

 

Directions:
-Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
-Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper.
-Mix dry ingredients in large bowl.
-Mix wet ingredients in small bowl and whisk until well combined. Pour into dry ingredients and mix well.
-Spread evenly onto cookie sheet.
-Bake until golden brown, approximately 35 minutes. Check every 10 minutes to prevent burning.
-Remove from oven and allow to cool and harden completely.
-Break up into desired size granola. Store in airtight containers or jars.
-Eat plain by the handful, or with milk, yogourt, ice cream, fruit compote, or any other way your creative mind desires!

granola pic

 

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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 <a href=”http://www.acanadianfoodie.com/the-canadian-food-experience-project/the-candian-food-experience-project/”>here</a&gt;.

Maple – With a Side of Cin

Go big, or go home. I suggest that most activities in life are not worth participating in if you’re not going to give it your all. Hopefully, all that effort pays off in the form of some pleasure, either through the activity itself, its outcomes, or the sense of accomplishment. There’s not much in my life I engage in ‘half-assed’, and this month’s CFEP post is big in size, flavour and meaning, and also generally scores big on the pleasure-meter.

Maple season in Ontario is soon upon us, though the cold temperatures may stall or lessen production this year. Still, the sugar bushes are starting to advertise their annual activities, and I’m still recalling the lovely taste of maple taffy from Winterlude. Having moved to Eastern Ontario almost 4 years ago, I’ve learned a bit about maple syrup production and have been amazed at the complex extraction systems set up by some of the local producers.

When we moved to this area we bought a 120 year old house, which boasted two massive, centuries-old maple trees on the front lawn. Their lovely canopies provided expansive shade in summertime and were the impressive centerpieces of the surrounding flower beds. A couple of years ago, we actually tapped them and extracted some sap. Of course, the amount we obtained in our inexperience was hardly enough to produce much syrup in the end, but it was nonetheless tasty and a cool experiment. Unfortunately, those beautiful, mature trees had to come down the following summer for significant safety reasons and it was a mournful occasion indeed. We were glad we had gotten the opportunity to taste their exquisite delicacy. (As a side note, those trees provided an enormous quantity of firewood with which to heat our home as well as friends’.)

In honour of all the maple syrup producers of Eastern Ontario and Canada, and our fallen trees, I thought it appropriate to use local maple syrup as one of the ingredients in my recipe for this month.

Cinnamon is a very sensual and passionate spice: fiery and intense, but also sweet and comforting. It’s one of my favourite spices for a number of reasons, but ultimately, the scent and taste (and physical sensation, but I digress…) of cinnamon drives me a little wild. I’d proffer that there are few people that dislike cinnamon-sugar or maple syrup, and this month I combined the two with home-made pastry to make an undeniable crowd pleaser: buttery, delectable, sinful, giant maple-glazed cinnamon rolls.

I have to say that I shamelessly licked every last drop of the glaze from the pans before washing them. It is just too good to waste.

Giant Maple-Glazed Cinnamon Rolls

INGREDIENTS

Pastry
• 1 cup warm milk (110 degrees Fahrenheit)
• 2 eggs, room temperature
• 1/3 cup butter, melted
• 4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
• 1 teaspoon salt
• ½ cup white sugar
• 2 ½ teaspoons active dry yeast

Filling
• 1/3 cup butter (I used salted to give a touch of salty taste to the filling)
• 1 cup brown sugar, packed
• 2 ½ tablespoons cinnamon
• ¾ cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Glaze
• 1 cup pure maple syrup
• ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
• 1 cup packed brown sugar
• ½ cup chopped, toasted walnuts (optional) for topping (do not add when cooking glaze)

INSTRUCTIONS

Add pastry ingredients in order listed into bread machine pan and set to ‘dough’ setting. Machine will mix and raise your dough for you.

If you do not have a bread machine or wish to make your pastry by hand, follow the next 5 steps:
1. Dissolve yeast in warm milk in a large bowl.
2. Mix in sugar, butter, salt and eggs.
3. Add flour and mix well.
4. With flour-dusted hands, knead the dough on floured countertop, forming into a large ball.
5. Place dough into greased bowl, cover with a towel, and allow it to rise in a warm, draft-free location for about 1.5 hours, or until doubled in size.

Meanwhile, make the glaze. In a medium saucepan over medium heat, melt butter in maple syrup. Once melted, turn off heat and add sugar, stirring until completely dissolved.
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Pour mixture evenly into two 9×13 cake pans.

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After dough has risen, turn it out onto floured surface and allow to rest a further 10 minutes.
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Roll dough out into a large rectangle, until dough is about 1cm thick.

Combine sugar and cinnamon in medium bowl and brush dough with melted butter. Sprinkle cinnamon-sugar liberally over dough. Sprinkle chopped walnuts evenly, if desired

Roll up dough from long side, as tightly as you can. Using a heavy, sharp knife, gently cut into 12-14 rolls, about ¾-1 inch thick. Place rolls in pans, on top of syrup mixture. Allow to rise in a warm, draft-free area for a further 30 minutes.

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Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Place pans in oven and bake for about 20 minutes, or until golden brown and syrup is bubbling nicely. Immediately place a cookie sheet upside-down over the top of the pan and using oven mitts, quickly flip the pans over, so the cookie sheet becomes the bottom.

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Place on safe surface for 2 minutes to allow glaze to fall. Remove cake pans, and sprinkle tops of rolls with toasted walnuts if desired.

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Allow to cool only slightly, as these rolls are best eaten fresh and warm. If I were you, I wouldn’t let any of that precious glaze go to waste. It will harden on the pan quickly and become a sticky, gooey mess which, for some of us, makes it even more luscious. If you do choose to allow them to fully cool in order to transport them, the glaze will harden and make it easier to pack. They should be reheated in the oven at your destination for best results.

Enjoy this maple-cinnamon kiss!

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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 <a href=”http://www.acanadianfoodie.com/the-canadian-food-experience-project/the-candian-food-experience-project/”>here</a&gt;.

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.