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Archive for the ‘Dessert’ Category

Postscript: The Loot

 Well, the party was fun. We ate, drank, caught up and cooed at each other’s  babies. And as the afternoon wore on and people decided it was time to go, we all lined up in front of the many piles of cookie packages and took our shares. It felt like grown-up trick-or-treating.

Behold, the loot!

Top: Coconut stars, almond-chocolate shortbread crescents

Second row:  Vanilla-raisin biscotti, snickerdoodles, chocolate-sprinkled shortbread, apricot nuggets

Third row: Chewy ginger cookie, white chocolate-dried fruit cookie, After-Eight cookie

Bottom: chocolate-almond shortbread

There may or may not have been chocolate-dipped potato chips as well, but we have no photographic evidence. Ahem.

Susan, thank you so much for organizing this exchange every year. Thanks to you, I have a freezer full of cookies! Now cue the willpower.

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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

Icing:
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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Pumpkin ginger pound cake

I think it’s safe to say that my recent move has changed my relationship to my stuff. In the weeks leading up to the big day, we had a yard sale and purged a ton of stuff. We dropped off loads of goods at the Goodwill. I even opened up the Boxes in the Basement. You know, the boxes full of lifetime detritus that you only ever look at when you’re packing up to move — and I sorted through them, culled some things, and made albums with old photos. I’m turning over a new leaf in my relationship with all the stuff I carry around with me, folks. I’m determined that if I’m going to have stuff in my life, I’m going to use it and enjoy it, not just resent it when it’s time to move.

All of this, in a roundabout way, was my motivation for making this cake.  (Well, that and a desire for cake.) I have this really cute jack o’lantern muffin tin, which of course only gets used at a particular time of year. This past weekend I realized that  it was the end of October and I hadn’t used it yet. And if the darned thing was going to get used this year, Sunday was the day. 

This recipe is adapted from a Fine Cooking recipe that came into my life many years ago, and its appeal stretches far beyond Halloween.

I normally bake it as a Bundt cake, but in honour of the season, and the pumpkin-shaped tin, I made cupcakes and baked the leftover batter in a small loaf pan. The original recipe is very nice, but since I am a lover of all things ginger I boosted the fresh ginger content a fair bit, and added some ground white pepper for a spicy kick.  

Also, the original recipe tells you to separate the eggs, whip the whites and add them at the end for maximum volume. This has some merit, and will make a lighter cake. But what cake-baking mother of a three-month-old has time for that, I ask you? We all draw our lines in the sand.

This cake is delicious with vanilla ice cream or some custard. It is also excellent on its own. If you have the willpower, it even ages well over a couple of days as the flavours develop. Just keep it at room temperature and wrapped in plastic or foil.

Pumpkin ginger pound cake
(batter will make one Bundt pan, 24 small-ish cupcakes, or 2 small loaves.)

1 cup unsalted butter, completely softened at room temperature; more for the pan
2 1/2 cups cake flour; more for the pan (I used all-purpose flour, and it turned out just fine.)
1 1/2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. table salt
1 1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground ginger
1/2 tsp. ground white pepper
1/4 tsp. ground allspice 
2 cups packed light brown sugar
1 1/2 tbsp. minced fresh ginger
1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, at room temperature, lightly beaten
1 cup unsweetened pumpkin purée ( I roasted my own pumpkin, but canned will work just fine, too.)
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare your pans by brushing them with butter, then dusting with flour.

Combine the dry ingredients: in a large mixing bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, salt and spices; whisk to combine.

Make the wet mixture: in a large stand mixer, mix the butter at medium speed until smooth. With the mixer on low speed, gradually add the brown sugar. Bringing the mixer back up to medium, cream the butter and sugar together until light and fluffly. On low speed, add the eggs, mixing  just to combine. Add the vanilla, grated fresh ginger, pumpkin puree and vegetable oil, and mix until smooth.

Dry meets wet: With the mixer on low speed, mix in one-third of the flour mixture and stir just until the flour disappears. Repeat with the flour in two more passes, making sure to scrape down the sides of bowl thoroughly. Mix just until combined.

Bake: Spoon the batter into your prepared pan (or pans). Your baking time will vary: 40-50 minutes for a Bundt cake, 20-25 minutes for cupcakes, and 30-35 minutes for loaves. In any case, to test a cake for doneness, touch the top in the center with your fingertip. It should spring back when you take your hand away. Alternatively, you can insert a toothpick into the centre of the cake.  If it comes out mostly clean with a few moist crumbs clinging to it, it’s done.

Let cool about 10 minutes in the pan, then invert the cake pan onto a cooling rack to finish the job.  To serve, a light dusting of icing sugar will make it pretty. But really, you’ll already have impressed everyone just by making this cake.

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End-of-summer plum ginger tart

The first day of school has come and gone, the days and nights are growing cooler, but I’m still wearing my sandals, dammit, and likely will be until October, when the mercury dips low enough to necessitate socks.

And as we ease through the transition from high summer’s lush stone fruit to the this season’s fresh apples and pears, I made this tart the other night with some plums.

It’s taken me a long time to become comfortable with making pie pastry. I’m always worried about overmixing it and having it turn out too tough, or not letting it rest enough and having it shrink in the oven. For a while I thought that making classic flaky pie pastry, like the knack for getting your whites really white, was the domain of our mothers and grandmothers – you had to be inducted into that secret society before you really got the hang of it.

One of my last cooking jobs, where I had to make pies every other day, helped cure me of that.  It’s all about practice, pure and simple. And also confidence. Sure, there are tricks, like adding some vinegar or even vodka to the water – and these have merit. But for me the bottom line is that as long as all of your ingredients are very cold, and you don’t mix it too much, you’ll be ok. You can even add a bit more water than you think you should, and it will be ok.

But for those of us who, unlike our grandmothers, aren’t in the habit of whipping up a pie on a regular basis, this pastry is a breeze. And the freeform shape means you don’t even have to trifle with a pie plate. Easy as pie.

Plum Ginger Tart
serves 6 virtuously, or 4 generously

For the pastry:

1 cup all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling
1/4 cornmeal
1 tsp. sugar
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup butter or shortening (or a mix of both)
ice water

For the filling:

1 1/2 pound of plums (about 6), sliced thin
1/2 cup sugar (to taste)
1/2 tsp. grated fresh ginger
1 tbsp. flour

1 egg for egg wash
parchment paper for baking, cut large enough to fit a cookie sheet

First, make your pastry: In a bowl, mix together the flour, cornmeal, sugar and salt. With a pastry cutter or two butter knives, cut in the shortening until it looks like a crumbly mixture, with some pea-sized pieces of shortening in it. Add in 2 tablespoons of ice water, then additional tablespoons of water if needed. The dough should stick together when squeezed.  Shape the dough into a flat disc, wrap it in plastic wrap, and chill it in the fridge for an hour. (If you’re impatient like me, you can probably roll it out after a half-hour, but I found it crumbled a bit too easily and would have benefited from the extra resting.)

Make the filling:  In a bowl, mix the plums, ginger and sugar together. This would be a good time to taste the fruit and make sure the sweetness is to your liking. Depending on the sweetness of the fruit, you might want to add another few tablespoons. Once you’ve got that tweaked to your liking, add the flour.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

Shape the tart: Lightly flour the parchment paper, and roll out the pastry to approximately 14 inches around. Transfer the crust, parchment and all, onto a large baking sheet.

Pile up the filling in the centre, leaving about 2 inches around for a border. Fold the border over the fruit. You can try to make this all pleated and pretty, but I think the tart will be just as attractive – call it rustic – if it cracks here and there. Some juices may spill out onto the parchment paper, but that’s why you have it there.

Bake the tart for 40 to 45 minutes, until the crust is brown and the filling is bubbling. Let it cool for 15-20 minutes. This will be a test of your willpower, but it helps the juices congeal a bit so you don’t lose them when you slice the tart. 

Best served warm or at room temperature, but if you happen to eat some leftovers (ha!) straight out of the fridge, well, I’m not one to judge.

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The joys of rhubarb

Alice Waters has called rhubarb the vegetable bridge between the hard fruits of fall and winter and the soft fruits of summer.

I love rhubarb. More than asparagus, wild leeks, fiddleheads or even morels, rhubarb is my favourite food of Spring. I love how its colour subtly varies from green to ruby red along its stem, I love how its flavour stays tart and sharp, even after you add tons of sugar to it.

I buy pale pink forced rhubarb in January, though I always find there’s something lackin about it. Come May, I become obsessed with getting my hands on as much rhubarb as I can. My sister-in-law has a huge rhubarb patch in her back forty, and I’ve been bugging her incessantly to bring me some. (She doesn’t use it, anyway.) She did bring me some last week, and I put it to use right away:

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Do you know the joys of rhubarb chutney? It is sweet, sour and aromatic. I learned this recipe years ago at a restaurant I worked at in Guelph. I eat it with pork chops, samosas, in grilled cheese sandwiches and it’s especially good with lamb.

Rhubarb Chutney

4 cups chopped rhubarb
1 large onion, minced
1 tsp. ground allspice
½ tsp. ground cinnamon
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
¾ cup cider vinegar
1 cup brown sugar

The method is simple: combine everything in a saucepan and simmer for at least an hour until the rhubarb is thoroughly cooked. You can eat it right away provided you have the right things to eat it with, but its flavour improves after a few days. It keeps well at least a month in the fridge.

That’s the savoury thing I do with rhubarb. For desserts, of course there is rhubarb crisp and just plain rhubarb compote that goes well with pancakes or pound cake.

But even with the harvest that my sis-in-law brought me, I still needed more. So I was happy to see a good supply at the grocery store today:

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I’m not sure how I’ll use it all, but this cake is at the top of the list. This cake is a favourite at my house. It’s not too sweet, but feels decadent all the same – maybe because it’s so pretty. The anise flavour perfectly complements the rhubarb. If you don’t have buttermilk you can use milk or yogurt, but buttermilk makes the cake super light.

photo courtesy of Epicurious

photo courtesy of Epicurious

Upside-Down Rhubarb Anise Cake

For topping:
¼ cup unsalted butter
¾ cup packed light brown sugar
3 cups rhubarb, chopped into 1 inch pieces

For cake:
1 teaspoon anise seeds, ground
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
2/3 cup granulated sugar
½ teaspoon vanilla
2 large eggs
¾ cup well-shaken buttermilk

Preheat your oven to 350°F.
Over moderate heat, melt butter in a 10-inch cast iron skillet and reduce heat to low. Sprinkle brown sugar evenly onto bottom of skillet and heat, undisturbed, 3 minutes (not all brown sugar will be melted). Remove skillet from heat and arrange rhubarb in one layer over the brown sugar, in a pretty pattern.

In a mixing bowl, mix together the flour, baking powder, anise, flour, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, cream the butter and sugar together and add the vanilla.Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add flour mixture in batches alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Make sure not to overbeat – mix just until combined.

Spoon batter over rhubarb in skillet, spreading evenly (be careful not to disturb rhubarb), and bake cake in middle of oven until golden, about 45 minutes, or until a tester comes out clean. Cool cake in skillet on a rack 15 minutes.
Run a thin knife around edge of skillet and invert a plate over skillet. Keeping plate and skillet firmly pressed together, invert cake onto plate. Carefully remove skillet and serve cake warm or at room temperature.

What are your favourite things to do with rhubarb? Please send them may way!

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