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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
For the topping:
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 large egg
1 large egg white
grated zest of 1 lemon
juice of 1 lemon
icing sugar, for sprinkling
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.
Even people who claim to love food with near obsession will often tell you that cooking for yourself is either a waste of time or horribly self-indulgent. It wasn’t that long ago that I counted myself among them. Since a large part of eating is sharing and connecting with others, cooking was something I did to nurture family and entertain friends. I always wanted to impress people with what I made, which always added an element of stress to my time in the kitchen and made the whole process of cooking less pleasurable. Everything had to be timed just so and look worthy of the pages of Gourmet magazine. It was easy to forget the whole point of getting together and eating in the first place. It all got lost in some misplaced drive for perfection.
There were times when I came home from work and poured myself a bowl of cereal for dinner. Or fixed myself a sandwich, even though I had already had one for lunch. I cooked for myself, but not every day. I didn’t eat packaged foods; I made fresh food, but the sort of food one makes when in a hurry or not wanting to make much of a fuss. Pasta with a bit of bottled pesto. Store-bought skewers of chicken thrown on the grill and eaten with a green salad and a microwaved sweet potato. Nothing was inherently wrong with this food, it just wasn’t very exciting. Furthermore, it wasn’t food I would ever serve anyone but myself.
Everything changed when I began writing this blog. I started Gratinée when I decided that I wanted to become a food and travel writer. I wanted a portfolio of writing samples I could show editors; this was my main motivation. But when you put so much work into something, you want others to read it consistently. I wasn’t necessarily looking for a huge audience, but I wanted a loyal one. People who would come to this site and find something compelling in the narrative, inspiring in the recipes, and keep coming back. To this end, I knew that the writing mattered, but that the photography and recipes I chose would also be paramount. The photography is an evolution, and I try my best with my limited resources i.e. major lighting challenges. The recipes represented here are for the type of food that I love to eat. Simple, classic dishes, often French or inspired by French technique, comforting and bursting with robust flavor, composed of fresh and easy to find ingredients.
When I started cooking for this blog, I was essentially cooking for one. I offered the full recipe, but always cut the ingredients by half, or even three-quarters. I froze a lot of food and began inviting people for dinner more often. Posting recipes that people would want to make required more. More ingredients, more herbs and spices, more trips to the grocery store. It required more of me. Because I was accountable to this project, I had to come home and cook something new instead of just plopping on the couch.
I learned a lot. I learned how to cook new dishes, of course, but I also learned more about what I liked and what I didn’t like. Through my exploration and sourcing of better quality ingredients, my palate changed. I learned what a really good cheese should taste like. I began to love cilantro even though I once hated it. I found my voice, not only in terms of how I wanted to say things, but also in the kitchen.
Here is what I noticed when I began cooking for myself with some effort; the things that I cooked, more often than not, turned out perfectly. Much better than they did when I cooked these same things for others. When I cooked for myself, I didn’t have to impress anyone. I felt much more relaxed about the whole process when it didn’t matter whether my souffle fell or not. No one else was going to eat it but me. Even when my food didn’t look that great, it always tasted fine. Learning this was a kind of liberation, wholly unexpected.
There are days when I still want something fast, something that I can throw together in a matter of minutes. But I’m no longer satisfied with the standard fare of singledom. The other day I noticed that in almost eight months of blogging that I have posted only one pasta recipe. This is amazing to me, because for years, I ate pasta on an almost daily basis. Not that there is anything wrong with pasta, but writing this blog has taught me that there is so much more in the world to cook and eat.
Lemon Garlic Prawns
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
pinch dried rosemary
pinch dried chili flakes
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tablespoons butter
basil, chopped chiffonade style
juice of half
1) Combine all of the ingredients except the lemon juice and butter in a mixing bowl. Toss the prawns to make sure they are well coated.
2) Melt the butter in a skillet over high heat. Add prawns and cook for a couple of minutes on each side, until they turn pink and cooked through.
3) Drizzle with lemon juice and garnish with more chopped basil, if desired. Best eaten with slices of French baguette or pita.
If you regularly get your hummus in the deli section of your supermarket, I implore you to stop right now. I have a hummus recipe that will knock your socks off. Why should you bother making your own hummus? Because the stuff in the grocery store or your local deli is an inferior product, full of preservatives and bad fats–as is the case with most store-bought dips and spreads. It’s easy to make, and requires just a few ingredients, which you may already have on hand. The only step that takes any time at all is the soaking of the chickpeas, but you simply put them in a pot of water overnight and they’ll be ready for you the next day.
Now I must warn you. An authentic hummus is never presented as pictured here, in a towering mound or plopped in a bowl slapdash and any-old-way. This is a matter of my taking artistic license, so please forgive me. Hummus should actually be spread on a plate and smoothed down from the middle outward, creating a well in the center. Then you sprinkle it with a bit of ground cumin and drizzle it with olive oil and lemon. You can also infuse some olive oil with paprika, strain it, then drizzle it over the hummus, finishing with a thin line around the plate. Authentic and delicious, and pretty impressive for a plate of beans. You’ll be surprised with this hummus; it is substantial, yet light and fluffy at the same time from all that blending. I love to eat it with chunks of really good pita, warmed in the oven, or serve it with a plate of cut-up vegetables and multigrain crackers. A few choice olives wouldn’t hurt, either.
This recipe comes from Paula Wolfert’s amazing book The Cooking of the Eastern Mediterranean, which I intend to review here soon. For now I will just say that if you haven’t cooked from Paula’s fabulous recipes, then I urge you to do so as soon as possible. Paula is often hailed as the preeminent authority on Mediterranean cuisine. Her books contain recipes from France to Syria and all points in between. She has traveled all over the globe in search of these recipes, which are marvels of authenticity and accessibility. By picking up this one book, I know more about Mediterranean cuisine than I ever thought I would. I highly recommend it.
Paula Wolfert’s Hummus
Makes 2 1/2 cups
1 cup dried chickpeas (250 ml)
1 small onion, peeled
1/4 cup tahini (sesame seed paste) (60 ml)
2 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed with 1/2 teaspoon (2.5 ml) coarse salt
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice or more, to taste (50 ml)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil (15 ml – 30 ml)
ground cumin, paprika, or pomegranate seeds for garnish
1) Put the chickpeas in a pot and cover with water. Soak overnight.
2) Drain; rinse and cook with the onion in water to cover until the chickpeas are very soft. Drain, reserving 1/2 cup of the cooking liquid for the dip. Set aside 1/4 cup of chickpeas for the garnish. Discard the onion.
3) Stir the tahini in its jar until the oil is well blended. Place tahini in the blender or bowl of the food processor. Blend the tahini, garlic, and lemon juice until the mixture “whitens”.
4) With the machine running, add the reserved cooking liquid. Add 1 3/4 cup chickpeas and process until well blended. Correct the seasonings with salt and lemon juice.
5) Allow the dip to mellow at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours. If you would like a smoother dip, push it through the fine blade of a food mill and discard the skins of the chickpeas.
6) To serve, spread dip on a shallow serving dish. Use the back of a spoon to make a well in the center. Drizzle with olive oil and garnish with ground cumin, paprika, or pomegranate seeds.
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.
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
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.
I’d been wanting to make Ina Garten’s coconut cupcakes ever since I bought her Barefoot Contessa cookbook over a year ago. I love Ina’s recipes and I faithfully watch her show. Her food is simple yet delicious. Classic, with a twist. I rely on her books when I entertain, and they haven’t failed me yet. People are always impressed with the things I make from Ina’s books.
I do admit, though, I usually skip the chapter on baked goods. There’s nothing inherently wrong with her pecan squares or her croissant bread pudding. In fact, they look fabulous. I just have a wee bit of a problem with adding a pound of butter to whatever I bake. Maybe it’s me and I just haven’t baked enough to know how rich a lot of baking can be. It’s one thing to buy a white chocolate macadamia nut cookie to go with your latte at Starbucks, quite another to see all the fat that goes into such a cookie when you make it at home.
Take those pecan squares of Ina’s. Her recipe calls for 1 1/4 pounds of butter for the crust and 1 pound of butter for the topping. Her recipe makes twenty squares. Do the math. That’s a heart attack waiting to happen. I’m all for butter–I can’t live without it. But really, sometimes too much is too much.
But I couldn’t get the coconut cupcakes off my mind. When the opportunity to make them presented itself in the form of my brother’s birthday last week, I finally made them. Needless to say, I reduced the amount of butter called for in Ina’s recipe. I don’t think it diminished the cupcakes in any way. Despite my building them up in my mind for so long, they did not disappoint, and I’ll definitely make them again.
I did add a twist of my own, though. Lemon. I love lemon. Everything tastes better with lemon, in my humble opinion. I added the juice of a couple of lemons to the batter and the icing, along with their zest. They gave these rich cupcakes a bit of contrast and a refreshing tang, and the little yellow flecks of zest made them look even more scrumptious.
Ina Garten’s Coconut Cupcakes with Cream Cheese Icing
adapted from “The Barefoot Contessa” cookbook
Makes 18-20 large cupcakes
1 stick unsalted butter at room temperature
2 cups sugar
5 extra-large eggs at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
14 ounces sweetened shredded coconut
cream cheese icing (recipe below)
1) Preheat oven to 325F. With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until light and fluffy, about five minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl after each addition. Mix in vanilla extract.
2) Sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl. In three parts, alternately add the dry ingredients and the buttermilk to the batter, beginning and ending with the dry. Mix until just combined. Fold in 7 ounces of coconut.
3) Line a muffin pan with paper liners. Fill each cup with batter. Bake for 25-30 minutes, or until the tops are golden and a toothpick comes out clean.
4) Allow to cool in the pan for 15 minutes. Remove the cupcakes from the pan and finish cooling on a wire rack. Frost with cream cheese icing and sprinkle with the remaining coconut.
Cream Cheese Icing
1 pound cream cheese at room teperature
3/4 pound unsalted butter at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 pounds icing sugar, sifted
Blend together the cream cheese, butter and vanilla with an electirc mixer. Add the sugar and mix until smooth.
I did not change the icing recipe in any way. I was afraid that if I began tinkering with it, it might not come out right. You might want to use just a little icing for each cupcake and freeze the rest for next time.
Crepes and me. We go way back.
The first thing I ever really learned to make properly was crepes. Cakes failed to rise, pie crusts came out tough, custards lumpy. But crepes … crepes were easy. I would dump some flour in a bowl, add a couple of eggs and some milk and voila … a lovely thin pancake I could smother with any number of ingredients, like cinnamon sugar or apricot jam. When I was in junior high school and had sleepover parties, I’d get up early and have a stack of steaming crepes ready for breakfast for my girlfriends, who would ooh and aah appropriately over my prowess in the kitchen.
I grew up eating crepes. They were a simple dessert when we wanted something sweet. Sometimes we would have them for dinner on a weeknight, when my mother was too tired to cook. She set out pots of jam and little bowls of cinnamon or cottage cheese mixed with sugar. As she stood at the stove dropping spoonful after spoonful of batter onto a sizzling frying pan, I would make my way through each of these toppings, eating the crepes faster than she could make them. I much preferred these impromptu dinners to pot roast or beef stew.
Crepes originate in the Brittany region of France but have long been popular in Eastern European countries once belonging to the Austro-Hungarian empire. In France, savoury crepes are made with buckwheat flour, but in countries like Serbia, Bulgaria, and Hungary, both sweet and savoury crepes are made with regular wheat flour. You can find crepes all over the world now. There are a few creperies in my city, but a large crepe with cinnamon sugar can set you back five bucks. Since I have been making crepes for pennies at home all my life, I find this a little too much.
I like to make both sweet and savoury crepes. The possibilities are endless and I’ll be posting some of my favourites here. Whether I make crepes stuffed with seafood and hollandaise sauce, or slather them with Nutella, I always use the same recipe.
I use fewer eggs in my recipe than most. Many recipes call for three eggs to one cup of flour but I find this is one too many. The flavour is too eggy and the texture is almost omelette-like.
I use a crepe pan but you can use a regular non-stick pan. You can blend the ingredients together right in the blender and then pour the batter directly onto the pan. I like this because having a spout makes the job easier. You can also whisk the ingredients by hand in a bowl, or a large measuring cup with a spout. The important thing is that you put the batter in the fridge for half an hour or more to allow the flour particles to absorb the liquid, otherwise you will end up with a tough crepe.
The recipe that follows can be used for any type of crepe. I do not add sugar to the batter even if I’m using a sweet filling as I have found it causes the crepes to stick to the pan.
Lemon Ricotta Crepes
Makes 10 8-inch crepes
For the crepes:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup milk
1/2 cup cold water
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
melted butter for brushing the pan (about 1 tablespoon)
Mix all of the ingredients together in a blender, scraping down the side until the batter is smooth. Let the batter stand in the refrigerator for at least half an hour.
When you are ready to cook the crepes, heat a skillet over medium. Brush with melted butter.
To cook the crepe, pour the batter into the center of the pan and tilt the pan in several directions to coat the bottom evenly.
Cook on one side until golden; turn and cook briefly on the other side.
Stack crepes on a plate as you cook them. You may store them in an oven at 200F to keep them warm as you work.
Fill with ricotta filling and serve.
Lemon Ricotta Filling
1 cup ricotta cheese
juice of 1 lemon
zest of 1 lemon
4 tablespoons sugar
Mix all ingredients in a small bowl. You can add more sugar to taste if you prefer a sweeter crepe.
Fill the crepes once they have cooled slightly. You may also serve the crepes in a stack with the filling in the bowl, garnished with more lemon zest.
Sprinkling the crepes with icing sugar also gives a nice appearance.