Archive for the ‘Baking’ Category

Pumpkin muffins

We’re almost in what my sister likes to call Pumpkin Time. Yes, I know Thanksgiving and Hallowe’en are over, and we’re all pretty much over celebrating the harvest. She means Pumpkin Time in the Cinderella sense, as in turning into one — the year’s fun has peaked; it’s done. Pumpkin Time is where Autumn turns to Almost Winter.

November and I have an uneasy relationship. My birthday’s this month, and when I was a kid I usually had snow for my birthday, though not enough for a fun outdoor party. (I really feel that my spiritual birthday is in April, but never mind.) As an adult, this month is when I really start to feel the descent into cold and dark. My brain starts to really miss the sunlight.

In fact, the descent usually starts this weekend, when we turn the clocks back and trade a brighter morning for a darker evening. I hate that we mess with time like this; it’s one of the few reasons why I would ever want to live in Saskatchewan. I’ve done better in recent years in managing my seasonal affective disorder, but even so, to me November is the Month of Dread.

BUT! This week the weather has granted me a bit of reprieve. Sure, there’s more of a chill on the air, but the past few days here have been so sunny and golden. The leaves have turned but the trees are still half-full. I want these days encased in amber.

For now, Pumpkin Time isn’t so bad.

These muffins are a recent happy discovery. Lately I’ve been working on introducing Penny to new tastes, and it turns out freshly-baked tiny muffins are the perfect vehicle for new tastes. Warm? Check! Starchy? Check! Slightly sweet? Check!

To up the nutritional factor I used whole-wheat flour along with white, and applesauce so that I could get away with adding a bit less sugar. The molasses and spices give it a touch of pumpkin pie flavour. It’s a big hit with the kid.

Pumpkin muffins
makes 1 dozen muffins or 2 dozen mini-muffins

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
1/4 tsp. ground clove

1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup applesauce
1/2 cup plain yogurt
1/2 cup  brown sugar
2 tbsp. canola oil
1 tbsp. molasses
1 1/2 tsp. freshly-grated ginger root
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Optional: 1/2 cup of toasted pepitas or pecans, plus more for sprinkling on top

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare a muffin tin; either with paper liners or lightly grease each well with butter or cooking spray.

Sift together all of the dry ingredients into a large bowl. (Or if you’re lazy, like me, you can measure all the dry ingredients into the bowl and then whisk to combine.)

In a smaller bowl, mix together the pumpkin, applesauce, yogurt and brown sugar; whisk together until the sugar is well incorporated. Add the oil, molasses and grated ginger and mix to combine. Last of all, add the eggs one at a time and mix just until combined. If you’re adding pepitas or pecans, mix them in now. Spoon the batter into each muffin well and top with extra pepitas or nuts.

Bake for approximately 25 to 30 minutes (about 15 for mini-muffins) and let cool for five minutes before removing the muffins from the tin.

Serve warm. These are delicious with maple butter, apple butter, almond butter or just plain butter.

Do-ahead: If you want to make these for breakfast, mix up the batter the night before and keep in a covered container in the fridge. As a bonus, I’ve noticed that the flavour of ths spices is more developed if you do this.


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Can we just take a moment and acknowledge that despite its many virtues, meatloaf is not very photogenic?

How about if I strategically place it on a nest of *Confetti Kale?  


Yeah, still not that great. So let me say that despite its humble appearance, this meatloaf is pretty spectacular.

I’m a big fan of meatloaf. I have never understood why it has a reputation for being dull and loathsome. Probably TV, wherein broccoli and brussels sprouts are also reviled, is to blame. But seriously, what could be wrong with a dish that’s economical and receptive to so many different types of seasoning? I love the traditional beef-and-pork meatloaf with the sweet ketchupy glaze, but there’s so much room to play. Moroccan lamb. Tex-Mex chipotle. And in this case, made with lean ground turkey, spiked with fennel and topped with bacon to make it seem decadent.

And let’s face it, this time of year, we still need a bit of decadence. Here in Central Canada we still have a bit of winter left to go. While you, my west coast friends, can go enjoy your asparagus and fiddleheads, we still need some comfort food to give us the strength to carry on.

I’m a bit surprised that I haven’t written much (if anything) about fennel here yet. Fennel is one of my favourite winter flavours. I eat it sliced very thinly in salads at least once a week these days, and when I cook with it, I usually try to bump up its presence in the dish with ground fennel seeds, but in this recipe I go one step further and add ouzo to deglaze the pan when you saute the onion. A quarter-cup sounds like a lot, but it mellows in the cooking. You could ease off and just use white wine or even stock, but it’s worth the use of an unconventional cooking ingredient.  

Despite its down-home virtues I don’t really think of meatloaf as a weeknight dinner unless I’ve done most of the work in advance.  There’s a fair amount of chopping, plus the baking time is a bit long. To get a better return for your time investment, you can mix up a double batch and freeze one batch for later. Or, if you are a two-eater household like mine, (well technically three, but she’s not really into meatloaf yet), you can split the recipe below into two smaller meatloaves. One half-recipe will yield two dinner servings plus two brown-bag lunches.

*At my house, Confetti Kale is what we call a simple saute of diced red pepper and carrot, corn and kale. Onion or garlic if we feel like it. Nothing fancy, just tasty and colourful.

Turkey Fennel Meatloaf
serves 8

Do-ahead: Take the recipe through to the end of step 4 and cover the meat mixture in plastic wrap. It will keep a day or two in the fridge before baking.

2 tsp. olive or veg oil
1 medium-sized onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup finely diced fennel (about 1 cup)
generous pinch chili flakes
2 tsp. fennel seeds, lightly ground
1/4 cup ouzo or white wine
4 thick slices of bread, crusts removed
3/4 cup milk
2 lbs ground turkey
4 slices of bacon, finely chopped
1 tbsp. worcestershire sauce
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 egg, lightly beaten

Optional: about 8-10 slices of bacon
Or: 2 tbsp. honey mustard as a glaze

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and position a rack in the centre of the oven.

2. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Cook the onion, garlic and fennel until softened and just beginning to brown, about 6 to 8 minutes. Add the chili flakes and fennel seeds, and cook one minute more. Add the ouzo or wine to deglaze the pan and cook 2 to 3 minutes to reduce the liquid, until the mixture is almost dry. Remove from the pan and set aside in a large mixing bowl.

3. In a shallow dish, soak the bread in the milk for about 5 to 10 minutes, mixing once or twice so that the bread is evenly soggy but not falling apart. Lightly squeeze the bread one handful at a time to get rid of some of the milk, and finely chop it. Add the chopped bread to the cooked onion-fennel mixture.

4. To the large mixing bowl, add the ground turkey, chopped bacon, worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper and egg. Mix just until combined – overmixing will make the meat loaf tough.

5. Do a taste test. Heat a teaspoon of oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Shape about a tablespoon’s worth of mixture into a patty and fry it on both sides until cooked through. Taste it and adjust the seasonings as needed.

6. To bake the meatloaf, line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the meat mixture to the baking sheet and shape it into a rectangular block about 10″x4″. It will become more loaf-shaped as it cooks. If you’re using an optional topping, now is the time to drape it seductively with bacon or brush the top with honey mustard. Bake the meatloaf for approximately 45 to 50 minutes (35 to 40 if you’re baking a half-batch), until the middle registers at 165 F on a meat thermometer. Allow it to rest for 5-10 minutes before serving.

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Recently I made some changes to my diet. The kinds of changes that, while you know are good for you in the long term, are difficult to carry out. The kinds of changes that require not only the advice of a trusted health professional to make you do it, but the deep-seated belief that she is right, and if you do it, you’ll feel better.

By which I mean since the new year I’ve cut out caffeine. And white starches. And sugars. I’ve started eating less wheat, and more of other grains, like amaranth, buckwheat and kamut. These changes are meant to be more or less permanent, with the understanding that in a little while I can switch from a zero-tolerance policy to a sometimes policy.

I’ve known for a while that I needed to do this. I have issues with my blood sugar levels, and there are times when getting hungry is a full-blown crisis. It’s not pleasant, for me or anyone close to me (especially my husband). So  I figure that since I don’t have work stress in my life these days, and I have the energy required to eliminate things from my diet, try out new ingredients and recipes, and recalibrate my tastebuds, now’s the time.

And here’s what I’ve learned so far: cutting out sugar sounds like a simple change. (Notice I said simple, not easy.) But it’s actually one change made up of a million tiny changes. It’s learning to like the taste of (decaf) coffee without sugar. It’s switching my evening snack from cheese and crackers to cheese, a bit of fruit and a few nuts. It’s discovering that oatmeal tastes just fine with some cinnamon and banana in it intead of maple syrup. (This is not true of french toast. Some things you just have to let go of.)

So far, results have been good. I feel much more even-keeled, and I’ve lost a few pounds to boot. So if you’re doing something similar, good news! I will share my successful new healthy recipes right here, so you have less kitchen experimenting to do!

But on to the recipe already. This new no-sugars rule unfortunately means no honey and no maple syrup either, or sweeteners in general. Which sadly removes granola bars from my diet. And I miss them! So I decided to take matters into my own hands.

I tinkered with this recipe from Smitten Kitchen, and took out just about all the sugar and honey, relying instead on nut butter, applesauce and eggs to bind it all together. So believe me when I say these things are barely sweet. In fact, the sweetness here largely comes from the dried fruit. It tastes sweet to me, because my palate is different now, but if you are NOT on a no-sugar diet, you can feel free to sub in honey for the applesauce, and even add more if you want.

Barely-sweet granola bars
makes 16-20 squares

1 2/3 cups quick-cook rolled oats
1/3 cup oat flour (or quick-cook oats pulverized in the food processor)
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. cinnamon
2-3 cups mixed dried fruit and nuts (I used figs, apricots, pistachios, almonds, coconut and ground flax seeds)
1/3 cup nut butter (I’ve used both tahini and almond butter; I preferred the almond butter.)
1/4 cup applesauce (optional: use up to 1/2 cup honey in addition to the 2 tbsp. below)
3 tbsp. melted butter
2 tbsp. honey
1 tbsp. vanilla
1 egg

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Line an eight-inch square with parchment paper, allowing it to go up the sides. Lightly grease the parchment paper and the exposed pan, or coat with a non-stick spray.

2. Mix together all the dry ingredients, including the fruit and nuts. In a separate bowl, mix together the nut butter, applesauce, vanilla, honey, melted butter and egg. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry until the mixture is evenly crumbly. If the mixture is too dry, add a few tablespoons of water.

3. Spread the mixture in the prepared pan, pressing it in firmly to ensure that it’s molded to the shape of the pan.

4. Bake the bars for 30 to 40 minutes until they’re brown around the edges. They’ll still seem soft and almost underbaked when you press into the centre of the pan but, they’ll set once completely cooled.

5. Cool the bars in their pan completely on a cooling rack. Alternatively, you can use the parchment paper to pull them out of the pan and let it cool on the rack so that it cools more quickly.

6. Once the bars have cooled completely, use a serrated knife to cut the bars into squares. To store, wrap the bars individually in plastic or stack them in an airtight container. In humid weather, it’s best to store bars in the refrigerator. They also freeze well.

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I have just packed up 12 dozen cookies for my annual cookie exchange. And since every bag is topped up with a couple extra, it’s actually more. So I just baked approximately 200 cookies.

Ahhh. Let me just pause here a minute, and take a sip of my well-deserved glass of wine.

Except I didn’t bake 200 cookies. This year, I got it in my crazy head that I wanted to make sandwich cookies. So really, I baked 400. But let me back up a second.

Tomorrow is my friend Susan’s annual cookie party, wherein a dozen or so friends get together for snacks, wine, catching up, and supplying one another with a festive season’s worth of baked goods. We each bake up huge batches of one cookie, divvy them up among us, and then go home with a bunch of different kinds of cookie. You can bring them to family gatherings, pack up a fancy selection to give as gifts, and you can have a stockpile of cookies in the freezer for when a sugar craving takes you. It’s genius!

It’s the kind of community-building thing I love to be a part of. It ensures that I see these friends at least once a year, and it reminds me that many people working together can achieve greater things than we can do on our own. I also love the baking.  My mom did cookie exchanges when I was a kid, and a lot of my Christmas memories are tied up in those weekend afternoons spent with her rolling out cookies by the hundreds, watching snow collect in the pine trees outside the kitchen window.

As a tradition, the cookie exchange is a pretty worthy one to establish and nurture, but there are a couple of key elements to making it work.

1. Involve only friends who like to bake, and are excellent cooks. You want people who will enjoy the work, and who will make cookies that you want to eat.

2. Kids can help, but they don’t get creative control. Meaning: nothing with mismatched sprinkles, neon icing or botched/unrecognizable cutout shapes. This may sound fairly hardline, but seriously, I put a lot of thought and care into the cookies I make every year and hope for some nice grownup cookies in return.

3. The cookies should be delicious, but not labour-intensive. Case in point, icebox cookies. You shape the dough into a log, chill it, and just slice and bake. And as long as the cookie is super delicious – such as the tart and shortbready Lime Meltaways – you’re still giving people something really nice.

This year, in deciding what cookie to make, I found myself daydreaming about a chocolate-mint combination. I wanted something that would approximate the After Eight mint in cookie form. This meant a sandwich cookie, but decided that I could justify the extra work as long as I stayed with the icebox cookie format.

It took me a while to find the right recipe. I tried the chocolate variation of Smitten Kitchen’s icebox cookies, but I couldn’t get it chocolatey enough. Plus, it was too shortbready and crumbly to support a filling. I ended up tweaking a recipe from the hilariously retro Betty Crocker Cooky Book, which yielded a nice solid, crispy cookie. I bumped up the flavour with both melted chocolate and cocoa, plus a hefty dose of peppermint extract. For the filling, I took my guidance from the cream cheese mints of my youth, only used less icing sugar.

Combined, the dark chocolate cookie and the rich minty icing are a cookie I’m quite proud of. Not quite an After Eight mint in cookie form, but pretty close.

After Eight Cookies
makes about 8 dozen filled cookies

Cookie dough:
2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. salt
1 cup softened butter
1 cup white sugar
2 oz. bittersweet chocolate, melted and cooled slightly
2 eggs, room temperature
1 1/2 tsp. vanilla
2 tsp. peppermint extract

4 oz. cream cheese (This is half a rectangular package of Philly; I use full-fat.)
2 cups sifted icing sugar
1 tsp. peppermint extract

1. Sift together the dry ingredients and set aside. In a stand mixer (or mixing by hand), cream the butter and sugar together until the mixture is well-incorporated, fluffy and creamy. Add the vanilla, peppermint and melted chocolate, and mix completely, scraping down the sides of the bowl. Add eggs one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl to ensure the egg is evenly distributed (but don’t beat so much that it’s completely incorporated). Add the dry ingredients in three instalments, scraping down the sides of the bowl each time.  Remove the dough from the mixing bowl, wrap in plastic wrap, and chill it for about 1/2 hour in the fridge.

2. Divide the dough into four equal pieces, and roll each into a log about one and a half inches in diameter. Wrap each log in plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least two hours.

Tip!  Want to ensure that your cookies will be nice and round? Keep a few paper towel cardboard rolls on hand, and slip the dough inside these to chill. They help the dough keep its shape as it chills.

3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cut the dough into 1/8″ slices and arrange on baking sheets lined with parchment paper. Bake 5 to 8 minutes, removing from the oven when the bottoms are just slightly browned. Cool completely on a wire rack.

4. To make the icing, mix the cream cheese in a stand mixer (or a bowl, by hand) until fluffy. Add the peppermint extract, then the icing sugar in three installments, scraping down the sides of the bowl. This can be made ahead of time, and keeps well in the fridge for a couple of days.

5. When the cookies are completely cool,  sandwich them in pairs with a generous dab of icing. 

These cookies can be kept frozen but will keep well for a few days at room temperature.

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Low-maintenance whole wheat bread

In early 2009, after the market tanked and lots of people started to lose jobs, frugality became the new  big thing. Or maybe it didn’t, but at the time that’s what all the newspapers were writing about. Thrifty was the new black.

So while I had the good fortune of having a stable job and good income, I started to think about tightening my own belt in ways that wouldn’t be too painful. What conveniences could I cut out of my spending and replace with making it myself? Not like doing my own dry cleaning, but something that would bring pleasure into my life. My grocery bill seemed an ideal place to start. 

Being someone who likes to eat good crusty whole-grain bread, I spend at least $5 a loaf, which usually adds up to $25 a month at my house. Not a huge cash savings, but nothing to sneeze at. I also had a new stand mixer,  recently received as a wedding gift (thanks, Mom!) and needed something to do with it that wouldn’t result in my house always being full of cake or cookies. So I decided, baking bread every week would be a good thing to try. I found a recipe for whole wheat bread from the Ace Bakery cookbook, and away I went.

Like most new habits, it went well for a while. I learned some new things about bread baking, chiefly that tasty, chewy, crusty bread comes from a dough that uses little (if any) sugar, not much yeast, and a long, slow rise. The catch with this particular recipe, although it yielded three loaves of tasty, chewy, crusty bread, is that it also came with a schedule. First, I had to mix a sponge and let it rise for half a day. Then I had to mix the bran part of the dough, mix the two together, and let it rise for another few hours. Then shape the loaves and let them rise, then bake, blah blah blah. A procedure that required that I map out the times for when mixing, kneading, shaping and baking would happen. Now, I’m a homebody, but I do like to get out the house on weekends. So the bread-making frugal ethos gradually died out.

And then a few months ago, I found this recipe for a no-knead bread in a Martha Stewart  magazine. A basic dough that requires a minimum of kneading and a long slow rise on the countertop for between 12 and 18 hours. This means very little working time. You can mix it up at dinnertime on a Friday or Saturday night, sleep in, and bake the bread the next afternoon. Or, mix the dough when you first get up in the morning and bake it before you go to bed that night.

In short, it’s a bread recipe that gives you a bit more freedom. It’s an easy way to save a bit of cash on storebought bread. Also, with very little work you can impress your friends when they come over for lunch.

One thing you must have for this recipe is an ovenproof pot with a lid – this helps keep the steam in and makes a good crispy crust. I sometimes use my heavy Le Creuset Dutch oven, but have found that a heavy-bottomed stainless steel saucepan works just as well.

Low-maintenance whole wheat bread
adapted from Martha Stewart Living, April 2010 issue

yields one round loaf

2 cups all-purpose flour, plus extra for dusting
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 1/2 tsp. salt
3/4 tsp. active dry yeast (not quick-rise)
1 1/3 cups water, room temperature

Mix the dough: In a large mixing bowl, stir the dry ingredients together. Add the water, mixing well until all the dry ingredients are incorporated and you have a wet sticky dough. This may require a bit of kneading, but that’s about all the kneading you’ll do for this bread.

First rise: Cover the dough with plastic wrap (not touching) and let stand at room temperature until it doubles in volume and has bubbles breaking the surface, about 12 to 18 hours.

Shaping and second rise:  Scrape the dough out of the bowl onto a floured surface. With lightly floured hands, fold the dough by lifting the edges into the centre and shaping it into a loose round. Generously dust a clean kitchen towel with flour and put the dough on it, seam side down. Dust the top with more flour and cover it with another clean dry kitchen towel. Let it rise in a warm place for 1 to 2 hours, until doubled in volume.

To test if your dough has risen enough, gently press your finger into the centre. If it’s risen enough, it won’t spring back when you take your finger away. 

Bake: When your dough is about 15-20 minutes away from being ready, preheat the oven to 475 degrees and have your rack in the lower third of the oven. Heat the pot until the dough is ready.

When the dough is ready, carefully remove the hot pot from the oven. Working quickly, unfold the towel and flip the dough into the pot, seam side down. Close the lid and bake for 25 minutes. Remove the lid and bake uncovered for about 20 minutes, until the top is a dark golden-brown.

Cool: Remove the bread from the pot right away. I usually do this by placing a wire rack over the pot, flipping it over, and right-siding the bread with my oven mitt.

I know this part is hard, but you really should wait until the bread is completely cool before you cut into it. If it’s still warm when you slice it, it will a) be harder to slice, and b) won’t be quite as crusty. But if you can live with that, hey, I can’t blame you.

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