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It’s hard to believe that a year ago today I started my little blog. I wasn’t sure if anyone would read it; after all, there are so many food blogs out there. I wasn’t looking for thousands of readers. What I was hoping for was a loyal following that would enjoy reading what I had to say and be inspired to cook something new. I was also developing as a food and travel writer and thought a blog would be a good forum for me to find my voice as one. Most of all, I wanted to really learn how to cook. To some end, I think I have accomplished these things. I’ve also made some wonderful friends who love food as passionately as I do. This was an unexpected benefit–icing on the cake, if you will.

Lately, I haven’t blogged as much as I would like to. Work, friends, family and the mundane details of daily life sometimes keep me away. Plus, there’s the book.

I have started a new novel. The last time I started a novel was ten years ago, in graduate school, when I was working on my Master’s degree in Creative Writing. I had been working on this novel on and off since then when a few months ago I met a man, an accomplished artist, who gave me this piece of advice: start something new.

At first, I balked. I had already started over again once before and was almost three hundred pages into the manuscript. How could I just start something new? It would feel like quitting. But after I thought about what he’d said, I realized he was right. The novel wasn’t working. Starting something new didn’t mean I would never finish it. Maybe one day I would be able to go back and look at it and figure out why it wasn’t working and fix it.

In the meantime, the new novel feels right. It’s still early days but it’s going well. Being my own worst critic and a perfectionist, I’m usually unhappy with whatever I write until I have revised it over and over again. But this is different. It’s only the first draft, but I like what’s on the page. The characters are alive, the story has layers. When it’s done, I think it will have guts. It’s already shaping into kind of story I like to read.

So I’m celebrating today–with chocolate cake. After all, what can be more celebratory than that? It seems to me that once you start baking, you’re always searching for the perfect chocolate cake. For me, a chocolate pudding cake is such a cake. Rich with deep chocolate taste and a center so moist it borders on gooey, it’s dessert nirvana.

This recipe is from Canadian Living. It’s one of those magazines where everything is tested a bazillion times, so the recipes are reliable. It’s simple yet delicious. I wanted something festive today, so I made a layer cake and frosted it with caramel icing, but you don’t have to do anything like that if you don’t want to. It’s delicious just as it is, or with a dusting of cocoa or icing sugar.

Chocolate Pudding Cake


Ingredients:

3/4 cup (175 ml) packed brown sugar

1/4 cup (50 ml) cocoa powder

1 cup (250 ml) boiling water or hot coffee

3/4 cup (175 ml) all-purpose flour

1/3 cup (75 ml) granulated sugar

2 tablespoons cocoa powder

1 teaspoon (5 ml) baking powder

1/3 cup (75 ml) milk

1 egg, beaten

2 tablespoons (25 ml) butter

1 teaspoon (5 ml) vanilla extract

1/2 cup (125 ml) chocolate chips

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 350F. In a bowl, whisk brown sugar with 2 tablespoons cocoa powder. Whisk in boiling water or coffee until smooth.

2) In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, 1/4 cup cocoa powder, and the baking powder. Add the milk, egg, butter, and vanilla. Whisk until just combined. Fold in chocolate chips.

3) Spread flour mixture in greased 9-inch cake pan. Pour liquid mixture evenly over top.

4) Bake in center of oven for 30 minutes or until the cake is firm when gently touched.

When it comes to baking my philosophy (for now) is the easier the better. What could be easier than a plate of palmiers, the butterfly shaped French cookies sometimes also known as “elephant ears” or “palm leaves”?  Now, I’m not talking about standing in the kitchen all afternoon buttering and folding laminate pastry dough–I’m not brave enough for that yet. I’m talking about puff pastry bought at the market, sprinkled with sugar and popped into the oven for minutes. The result is a light, buttery cookie with a caramel crunch that is hard to resist. And sure to impress.

Granted, I make sure I get the best puff pastry money can buy, usually the all-butter puff pastry at my local Gourmet Warehouse. This recipe is for a classic palmier–puff pastry layered with sugar–but palmiers can also be made savory, using pesto, thin layers of ham and mustard, or other condiments.

It’s best to allow the pastry to defrost overnight in the refrigerator so the dough is very pliable but still cold when you pop the cookies in the oven. In fact, you should put the dough in the fridge for about fifteen minutes or so after you have sprinkled it with sugar; the combination of the chilled dough and the heat of your oven is what makes the puff pastry rise.

To make palmiers, you will need a sheet of puff pastry and a half cup of sugar. Sprinkle your work surface with a generous dusting of sugar. This will prevent the dough from sticking and will press the sugar into the dough when you roll it out.

With a rolling pin, roll the dough out into a rectangle. Because you will be rolling up the dough, make sure your rectangle is symmetrical; you can use a pastry scraper or another sharp edge to keep the edges even. Sprinkle the dough with the sugar, pressing it gently into the dough. Gently lift the bottom half of the rectangle to the center so that it halfway up the middle. Press down. Fold the other side down to meet the other half and press that down as well. Now fold the two sides together.

Cover the roll with plastic wrap and put in the fridge for fifteen minutes. Cut the roll into 1/2-inch slices. Brush each piece with a pastry brush dipped in water and then press into some sugar. You can put an extra tablespoon or two on your work surface. Place palmiers cut side up on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper. Be sure to leave a lot of space between each palmier.

Bake the cookies at 400F for about 7-10 minutes, then turn with a spatula and cook for another 7-10 minutes, or until golden. This will give each side that crispy, caramel crunch.

Serve with coffee or alongside a bowl of vanilla ice cream.

I never thought I’d ever say this, but just between you and me, I’m all fooded out.  It’s not just the indulgences of Christmas, but of my birthday, friends’ birthdays, my grandmother’s birthday. It seems like half the people I know were born around Christmas, and the last couple of weeks have been a non-stop party in my mouth. It’s been a good time–a fabulous time. But really. Sometimes too much is too much.

And it’s not over yet. With New Year’s around the corner, a break from the kitchen is still a way off. I know what some of you are thinking. What!? A break from the kitchen! You don’t need a break from the kitchen. Ever. You adore cooking and do it every chance you get. You cannot survive without creating something ravishing in the kitchen on a daily basis. Sorry to say, but I am not of your ilk.

Don’t get me wrong. I love cooking–except when I don’t. I’m not sure why this is. Sometimes I think it’s my terminal aloneness that is to blame. It gets too easy to eat Cheerios for dinner when no one is waiting for you at home (remember Jerry Seinfeld’s cereal boxes?). Sometimes a part of me agrees with my friend G., who once proclaimed, “Cooking for yourself is lame.”

The great thing about food blogging, though, is that every meal is a photo op, an idea for a post. Although only a small fraction of what I cook and eat makes it into this space, I’ve learned to be creative when putting together quick meals and in this puff pastry has been my greatest ally.

I haven’t worked my way up to making puff pastry myself yet, but I often have a roll of the store-bought stuff in the freezer. It’s perfect for whipping up little appetizers or free-form tarts like this one. The leeks, fresh cheese, and dash of herbs give it a touch of elegance. Serve it at a party and your guests will never believe how easy it is to make. I often eat this tart with a salad for a weekend lunch, but it could be cut into bite-sized squares for your next soiree.

Happy New Year!

Quick Leek & Fresh Cheese Tarts

Ingredients:

Makes 4 tarts

2 sheets puff pastry

1 egg

3 large leeks, sliced, white parts only

2 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons water

herbs de Provence

salt & pepper to taste

1/2 package Boursin cheese *

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 400F.  Cook leeks in butter and water, covered, until the leeks are soft and have abosrbed the liquid, about 20 minutes.

2) Roll out puff pastry. Cut each piece in half. Make borders for the tarts by cutting thin slices of the pastry from the sides of the squares and placing them on top. Brush with egg.

3) Spread pastry squares with leeks. Crumble cheese over top. Sprinkle with herbs and a bit of salt and pepper if necessary.

4) Bake until pastry is golden brown on the edges and cheese is melted, about 20-25 minutes.

* Boursin is a fresh herb cheese with a soft and crumbly texture that is available at most grocery stores and cheese shops. It may be substituted with goat cheese; a herbed cheese tastes best with this tart.

Besides gorging on all the delectable baked goods at holiday time, I also love stuffing myself silly with the fruits of the season–mainly mandarin oranges and pomegranates. In fact, if I had to choose between the former or the latter, I would have a hard time deciding. As much as I love a good linzer cookie, I think life would seem very dull without the rich tang of pomegranate.

Pomegranates have been on my mind since POM Wonderful in California sent me several coupons for their pomegranate juice. If you haven’t tried it, run, run, run to the nearest store and get yourself some. The company grows, harvests and ships their own pomegranates, using practices that are sustainable and environmentally friendly. The juice is one hundred percent natural pomegranate, which is chock full of vitamins and antioxidants.

I picked up a few bottles at my local market and promptly made myself a pomegranate martini–probably not what POM Wonderful had in mind when offering me to try their healthy drink. Now if you’re anything like me, the more you have something you love the more you want it, and pomegranates are no exception. Soon I was looking for recipes to feed my pomegranate cravings. With a bit of sleuthing, I unearthed this recipe for Pomegranate Pound Cake, which is just as lovely as it sounds. Who would have thought of putting pomegranate seeds in cake? Not I. The addition of buttermilk to this recipe creates a moist cake that is surprisingly light–a perfect foil to tantalizing crunch of the pomegranate seeds.

Pomegranate Pound Cake

Adapted from Cooking light, November 1999


Ingredients:

3/4 cup sugar

6 tablespoons butter

2 large eggs

1 large egg white

3/4 cup buttermilk

grated zest of one lemon

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon salt

3/4 cup pomegranate seeds (about 1 large)

cooking spray

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Spray pan with cooking spray and set aside.

2) Beat sugar and butter at medium-high speed with a mixer until well-blended. Add eggs and egg white, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

3) Combine buttermilk, lemon rind, vanilla and baking soda. Mix flour and salt, stirring well with a whisk.

4) Add flour mixture to sugar and butter mixture alternately. Fold in pomegranate seeds.

5) Spoon batter evenly into the pan. Bake for 1 hour, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Cool in pan for 10 minutes. Remove from pan and cool completely on the wire rack.

Notes:

* yogurt may be substituted for the buttermilk in the same amount

* you can use a 9 or 10-inch bundt pan or an 8×4-inch loaf pan for this cake


I have a confession to make. I never bake for the holidays. Although I’m getting better at it, baking has often been a frustrating endeavor. My creations always fall short of my vision for them.  Besides that, there has never really been any need to. My mom and grandma always bake a plethora of cookies and bars in the weeks leading up to Christmas, mostly the traditional Eastern European kind that a lot of North Americans would find unfamiliar. There is a rugelach type of cookie, dusted with powdered sugar, squares made from phyllo and custard, kolache made from a yeast-risen dough and containing sour cream, or the linzer style sandwich cookies, a combination of nut-laden pastry and jam.

As impressive as these cookies are, I think I’ll leave them to the pros– at least until I get my baking skills up to par. For now, I’m going to stick with tried-and-true American recipes. I thought a pan of classic lemon bars was a good place to start. They may not be a traditional offering at the holiday table, but the splashy taste of lemon is always festive, don’t you agree?

Lemon bars have been on my mind ever since I met my writing group for lunch last weekend at the Vancouver Art Gallery. This little upscale cafeteria is a lovely place to stop for a homestyle dessert or something a bit more substantial. One bite of their buttermilk lemon bar and I knew I had to make some of my own.

In the end, I opted for a classic lemon bar from Dinner with Julie, one of my favorite blogs. No matter what I crave, I can always count on Julie. She’s a food writer with impeccable taste and a prolific blogger. Besides writing books, her job, and raising a family, she manages to blog several times a week. I don’t know how she does it.

These bars seem decadent but they’re surprisingly low fat; according to Julie, they contain less than 5 grams of fat and only 168 calories each. Good to know. That means a little more room for all those Christmas cookies.

Classic Lemon Bars

Makes 9 bars

For the base:

1/4 cup butter, softened

1/4 cup sugar

1 scant cup all-purpose flour

pinch salt

For the topping:

1 cup sugar

2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

1/4 teaspoon baking powder

pinch salt

1 large egg

1 large egg white

grated zest of 1 lemon

juice of 1 lemon

icing sugar, for sprinkling

Directions:

1) Cream butter and sugar together in a mixing bowl. Add flour and salt and blend until crumbly and well-combined. Press mixture evenly into the bottom of an 8’x8″ pan that has been sprayed with non-stick spray.

2) Bake 8 minutes, or until edges are barely golden.

3) Stir together the sugar, flour, baking powder and salt in the mixing bowl. Add egg, egg white, lemon zest and juice. Stir until well blended and smooth. Pour over base.

4) Bake for 25 minutes, until slightly golden and bubbly around the edges. Cool completely in the pan on a wire rack. Sprinkle with icing sugar and cut into bars.

almondcookies

I come from a cultural background where coffee–specifically Turkish coffee–is a way of life. There are many rituals around how coffee is made (over the stove in a little brass pot called a džezva) and imbibed (with neighbors and friends, usually on a weekend morning but sometimes during the week at a midday break). Couples get up extra early to partake in a cup together, before heading off to work and their daily chores. There is no question; coffee is sacred. Now tea? Tea, on the other hand, is for sick people. If you are ever offered coffee but request tea, you will invariably be asked if you are coming down with a fever.

For most of my life I shared this mentality. Except for the odd spot of chamomile when I had the flu, tea rarely passed my lips. I began drinking drip coffee when I was fourteen and graduated to espresso when I lived in Italy. I drank cappuccino and cafe lattes on a daily basis way before Starbucks began making serious inroads. I drank that Turkish coffee whenever I visited Serbia, even though I didn’t like it all that much. What I enjoyed was turning the cup upside down on my saucer when I was done and having my companion read my fortune in the coffee grounds, which always sat on the bottom like sediment.

Now I know some people who wax poetic about tea. I have a friend who will drive across the city for his favorite blends. Who has a special corner on his desk at work reserved for his tea leaves and the various accouterments of tea-making. Periodically he will implore me to take a whiff of some new discovery. As I dip my nose into the foil bag and inhale the scent of vanilla rooibos or a Mayan chocolate truffle infusion, I will concede to one thing; tea, like coffee, smells better than it tastes. With one exception–chai. The spiced milk tea from the Indian subcontinent.

In many languages, including my own second language, chai is the word for regular tea; however, in North America, chai refers to masala chai, tea that is brewed with a variety of aromatic spices such as cardamom, cinnamon and cloves. Often, the water is heated with 1/4 to 1/2 parts whole milk, which gives the chai richness. Chai also tends to be sweet, with a fair amount of sugar added to bring out the flavors of the spices. Since I have always adored these warm spices, I have become a big fan of chai.

Many coffeehouses serve chai made from commercial liquid concentrates. Supermarkets also carry teabags of chai blends, which need to be steeped longer than regular tea yet still lack the strength of traditionally brewed chai. You can also find chai spice blends alongside the herbs and spices, a powdered version which can be added to black tea for that masala chai flavor. Be aware, however, that purists decry this as not really chai. If you are interested in making an authentic chai, look here.

These cookies are inspired by that deep, rich chai taste. They’re a snap to make from ingredients one usually has one hand. Just the thing to have with your next cup of chai.

Chai-Spiced Almond Cookies

chaicookies

Adapted from Epicurious/Bon Appetit January 2006

Makes about 22 cookies

Ingredients:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

1 1/3 cup powdered sugar, divided

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 teaspoon almond extract

3/4 teaspoon ground allspice

3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom

1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup all-purpose flour

3/4 cup toasted coarsely ground almonds

Method:

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Beat butter, 1/3 cup sugar, extracts, spices and salt in a medium bowl. Beat in flour, then stir in almonds.

2) Using hands, roll dough into tablespoon-size balls. Press down top slightly and place on a large baking sheet, spacing apart.

3) Bake until pale golden, 10-15 minutes, depending on your oven. Be sure not to overbake.

4) Cool cookies on the sheet for five minutes. Place remaining sugar in a large bowl. Gently coat each cookie in sugar and cool further on a wire rack. Cool completely, then roll again in sugar before serving.


clafoutis

I find the more I cook and immerse myself in the world of food via various magazines and food blogs, the more I come to understand that there is so much I don’t know. This year I set out to become a food and travel writer and have achieved some success, but I realize that there is so much I’m going to have to learn about food if I want to have a career in this field. Since I think all of life is a learning curve, I don’t mind admitting my foibles in this regard. I have never eaten an artichoke and have no idea how to cook one. I love food but am a picky eater; although there are few foods that I dislike intensely, there are many that I don’t love and I feel life is too short to spend eating them. I would love to review restaurants, but I don’t think I could be objective enough to comment on organ meats or other such fare that is standard at some of these fine establishments that I read about yet have not gone to. Sadly, I will never be a restaurant critic for the New York Times, donning disguises and dining at Lutece.

Another curiosity: my favorite food is French, but until my trip to France last year, I had scarcely eaten it. My idea of French food was limited to quiche, onion soup, and potato gratin. Rather ironic considering I now regularly write about French restaurants in my hometown for some well-known online publications. Until I bought my copy of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I didn’t even know what clafouti was. I looked it up online, hoping to find a picture of this dessert which wasn’t a cake or a pancake, or a custard, but a combination of all three.

In fact, the first time I made a clafouti I expected a very cake-like texture and thought I had not baked it long enough. I made a mistake by not cooking some of batter before topping it with cherries and another layer of batter. I thought this was why the texture was so custard-like. I had no idea that it was supposed to be that way. Now that I’ve been set straight, I love to whip up a clafouti when I want something easy–something with fruit. I like to have it for breakfast on a weekend morning, instead of pancakes, sprinkled with icing sugar.

In MtAoFC, Julia has a master recipe for Cherry Clafouti, and then a list of variations. I chose to make the Clafouti aux Pruneaux because it’s the perfect time of year for plums. In this variation, she asks you to drop them in boiling water and peel them. I found the prospect of this too tedious, so I simply cut the plums in half (I used small ones) and sprinkled them with sugar. Otherwise I followed the master recipe, which I include here with my one little tweak. Instead of plums, you can also use sliced apple or pear instead of plums. Clafouti can be a perfect summer or winter dessert, depending on the fruit you use. Now that is what I call versatile.

Julia Child’s Plum Clafouti

Serves 6 to 8 people

plumclaf

Ingredients:

1 pound firm, ripe plums

1 1/4 cup milk

1/3 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1/8 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup flour

1/3 extra cup sugar

icing sugar for dusting

Directions:

1) Preheat oven to 350F. Cut plums in half and sprinkle with some sugar. Set aside.

2)Place all of the ingredients except the last 1/3 cup sugar in a blender in the order they are listed. Cover and blend at top speed for 1 minute.

3) Pour a 1/4-inch layer of the batter in a buttered fireproof baking dish or pyrex pie plate about 1 1/2 inches deep. Place in the oven for about 5 minutes–until a film of batter has set in the bottom of the dish.

4) Spread the plums over the batter with the skins facing up.  Sprinkle with the extra 1/3 cup sugar. Pour on the rest of the batter.

5) Bake in the middle position of the oven for about an hour, until the clafouti has puffed and browned and a toothpick or knife plunged into its center comes out clean. Sprinkle the clafouti with icing sugar before serving.

If you would like to follow Julia’s recipe exactly as printed, drop the plums in boiling water for exactly ten seconds. Peel them before slicing. Soak in 1/4 cup of orange liqueur, kirsch or cognac and let stand for one hour. Substitute this liquid for part of the milk called for in the recipe and omit the last 1/3 cup sugar called for in the recipe. The apple and pear variations call for the same method; use 1 1/4 pounds of apples or 3 cups of pears, peeled, cored, and sliced.

threetarts

With summer drawing to a close, I find myself scrambling for fresh fruit, heaping extra blueberries on my cereal and making desserts with plums or raspberries taking center stage. One of my favorite fruit desserts is a tart or tartlet loaded with whatever fruit is in season and a simple filling of cream cheese or custard. Especially, I love a strawberry tart, made with the choicest of bright red berries, their color highlighted by a glaze of melted red current jelly.

True, strawberry season is over. It is in late spring and early summer when these luscious berries are at their best. Modern farming methods have made this fruit available all year round, but I’m not a fan of buying it in the dead of winter. Yet, as the first nip of autumn fills the air, reminding me of some of the dreary and rainy days to come, I hanker for strawberries.

Picnik collage

I make my tartlet shells using Martha Stewart’s recipe for pate brisee, which seems to be the go-to recipe for pie-dough. Pate brisee is the French version of a classic pie or tart pastry. You press the dough into a disc rather than a ball before chilling it in the refrigerator, which helps it chill faster. The recipe makes 1 double-crust or 2 single-crust 9 to 10-inch pies, so I halve the recipe to make 4 4-inch tartlets. Of course, if you want to make 6 or 8 tartlets, use the whole recipe. You can find it here.

Strawberry Tartlets with Lemon Cream Cheese

strawbtart

Makes 4 4-inch tartlets

For the filling:

9 ounces (250g) cream cheese, at room temperature

3 tablespoons sugar

1 teaspoon good quality vanilla extract

1 tablespoon lemon juice

Cream all of the ingredients together in a small mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Spread into cooled tartlet shells.

Cut strawberries lengthwise into quarters and arrange on top of the cheese in a pyramid shape.

To give the tartlets a glaze, melt 3 tablespoons of red currant (or other red jelly) with one tablespoon of water and brush over strawberries with a pastry brush.



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QUOTE

"Noncooks think it's silly to invest two hours' work in two minutes' enjoyment; but if cooking is evanescent, so is the ballet." -Julia Child

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