Lucy’s Amaretti

My friend Rocca likes to bake cookies. Because she’s Italian and the women in her family have  taught her well, she will stare at you something evil if you decline any of her food offerings. Most don’t dare say no. Those who oblige are always glad they did.

Rocca understands flavor and the dynamics at play when you combine lots of sugar, butter and chocolate. She’ll practice a recipe with the tenacity of a terrier until she gets it just right. Rocca’s chocolate almond biscotti and her sea salt, chocolate and pistachio sablés are unparalleled, in both taste and appearance.

Maybe she was Japanese in a past life, for Rocca cares about good packaging, nesting her deep brown cookies into turquoise tin boxes that show off these treats in signature fashion. Just a glimpse of a turquoise box starts most of us Rocca-cookie-lovers salivating. We’re the same ones who hasten to return her tins the moment they are empty, ever hopeful for a refill.

My late husband Don – not a baker – always said, “Food tastes better when someone else makes it.” He was a consummate sweet talker, a salesman even, and he inspired the bread baker in me. Don’s sage words were ringing in my ears today as I tested Rocca’s amaretti recipe.

It just didn’t taste as good as when Rocca made it.

IMG_3290Full disclosure: I have a thing for amaretti. They are classic among Italian sweets and like most classic things, vary wildly from cook to cook, region to region. I’d made it my calling to sample them all, be it fresh from a bakery or ripped out of a  supermarket package. Yet all the recipes I’d baked were abysmal. I was resigned to never finding my dream amaretti recipe until that fateful day in Rocca’s kitchen.

“What? You’ve been hiding these?” I sputtered on a mouthful of hot espresso and frothy milk combined with crunchy-almond-amazingness.  Seconds earlier, Rocca had pushed a plate of amaretti in my direction.  This cookie was consummate:  awash in almondy, chewy goodness here was a pudgy, crackled morsel crowned with a whole almond dimple.

“Aren’t these great? They’re my sister Lucy’s.”

“She made them?”

“Nope, it’s her recipe and I made them.”

I had to have The Recipe.

Amaretti recipeRocca delivered it the next day in a text, taking a photo of Lucy’s typewritten recipe.  It was short and sweet.  Only five lines of ingredients and a very brief sentence of instruction below. The title read “Almond Cookies.”

But to this tried-and-true recipe tester and developer, it looked deceptively simple.

“Four eggs. No flour.  And a whole lot of ground almonds. That’s it?” I asked. “No leavener?’

IMG_3285“Oh, throw in a teaspoon of baking powder,” said Rocca flippantly. Were these Puglian sisters in collusion?! What other ingredients were somehow missing in this recipe meant for mangiacake me?

IMG_3283“Be careful,” said Rocca, relieving my paranoia slightly. “The almond flour is not cheap.  I was so shocked the first time I bought it: Fourteen dollars! And don’t buy blanched flour.  Whole almond flour tastes best.”

Two more ingredients needed examination: cocoa powder and that entire bottle of almond extract. Suddenly it became apparent why Rocca’s father likes to carry a little snort of Grappa in a recycled extract bottle. Lucy must use dozens of these in the course of a baking year and rather than toss them into the garbage, they went the way of her father who likes to tuck one of these discreet yet convenient mickeys into his Speedo bathing suit when strolling the beach in Mexico.

IMG_3751As to the cocoa powder, the taste is negligible.  The cookie batter is dark but bakes out into a light brown cookie.  This single teaspoon seems to counter that entire bottle of extract.

But taste is a mysterious thing and a cookie infatuation can derange even the most reasonable of people. Like my friend Ling.

“I like them too much,” she admitted recently after I gave her a gift package of Lucy’s amaretti.  “So I hid them.”

“Huh?” I wondered how that worked.

“My memory so bad,” she laughed, “Now I only eat five a day. When I can find them.”

Amaretti

Lucy’s Amaretti

I’ve cut Lucy’s recipe in half to reduce the sticker shock on the pricy almond flour. Plus, you’ll have some almond extract leftover for your next batch.  This makes plenty!

3                          large eggs, beaten

3/4 lb/ 12 oz      almond flour, whole not blanched

2 tbsp                 almond extract

2/3 cup               granulated sugar

1  tsp                   cocoa powder

1  tsp                   baking powder

Raw almonds

Icing sugar

Combine eggs, almond flour, almond extract, sugar, cocoa powder and baking powder into a batter. Scoop two teaspoons, dredge in a little icing sugar and roll into a small ball, place on a parchment paper lined cookie sheet and top with a whole, raw almond. Bake at 350 F for 8-10 min.

amaretti

Chinese Braised Pork Belly

It was a cold, rainy day at the Duncan Farmers’ Market but luckily, no lineup at Yesteryear Meats. I waited hopefully as the owner riffled through all of his four freezers searching for my request.

“Here it is,” he said, passing me a two pound chunk of Berkshire pork belly. “All that fat is good for you, full of CLAs” he said in his gruff, Aussie accent. “But not everyone appreciates it.”

He kept staring at me, looking long and hard, trying to cess out my pork-belly-loving-nature, before he passed the treasure to my outstretched hands.

“What will you do with it?”

“I’ll cook it real slow, Chinese-style,” I replied.  “I’ll braise it so that the fat stays in big fat, snowy chunks.”

I knew by the way he cocked his head and narrowed his eyes he hadn’t tasted this before.

But I had.

In China – pork belly capital of the world – they kowtow to pork fat and praise its culinary worth. They’re simply astounded that so many Western diners carve away fat and push it to the side of their plates.  My uncle, Hsiung Shu Shu adored the stuff and was faster with his  kuaizi (chopsticks) than myself or Auntie Di.  He’d spear the largest, fattiest morsel  and wail “Ai yo!” before the pork met his mouth, his eyes rolling in ecstasy.

Standing in the misty rain at the outdoor market, I held my two-pound frozen parcel close to my chest, regretting that I hadn’t spent more time in Auntie Di’s Yong He kitchen decades ago. I could see her smiling and braising her pork belly long and slow in a covered clay pot, nestled inside a bamboo steamer basket.  She’d calibrate a braising liquid of soy, stock, ginger, star anise and Shaoxing wine… but how many tablespoons, how many cups, I never bothered to learn the specifics.

My aunt made everything, except bao.  All the steamed buns we ate came out of a cart pushed through the Yong He alleyways by an old woman who wailed out “maaaaaaaaaaaaaan tou!”  plying her yeasty morsels day and night. Besides, Taipei in the 80s didn’t serve pork belly in a bun, the way David Chang at Momofuku has made famous.

Instead, Auntie Di would bring the clay pot to the table, along with four or five other dishes and politely say to our little family of three, “Mei you cai” which literally means “There’s no food”.

Ironic and understated, that was the cultural norm. Auntie Di spent most of every day cooking and preparing a generous buffet of foods for Hsiung Shu Shu and me to feast on.

Oh, how I wish I’d just stood there in her kitchen, observing and learning by osmosis. I have never mastered the cleaver like she who sliced a myriad different shapes, chopping ceaselessly upon a six-inch thick board, cut from a tree trunk. Why hadn’t I watched her prepare the wok, heat the bamboo steamers, clean the fish or stir up the scallion pancake batter?

Now, almost 40 years later, I must rely on the hundreds of taste memories stored in my palate to retrieve and recreate this braise. I know this belly is 90 per cent fat and needs to be browned at high heat to create a beckoning, caramelized surface.  After that, my instinct is to allow the simple passage of time and slow, low-heat cooking. Many classic Chinese braising sauces are too heavy-handed with soy, so I add only enough. I snap a cinnamon bark in half, toss in little stars of anise, pour over the golden elixir that is homemade chicken stock.  Instead of a clay pot and steamer, I turn to my enamelled cast iron Cuisinart and a 275 F oven.  Just before I cover it, I press down a big sheet of parchment paper over the surface to prevent evaporation. Every single drop of this unctuous braise is precious.

I won’t serve it with rice or bring it to the table and pronounce I have nothing to show. My husband David is already salivating in the kitchen, lurking over the turquoise Cuisinart, offering to pull the belly’s buttery strands apart.  While he prepares the meat, I take off the steamer’s lid and a cloud of sweet steam kisses my face.  I can’t stop smiling at these fluffy white buns which open up easily without complaint, ready to receive snowy chunks of fat and tender juicy pork.

At the table, we dig in, our lips and cheeks smattered with the salty-sweet hoisin slipped around the meat, slipped around the spongy bun.  Chef Chang will be proud of me.  I have recreated his pork belly bao all the while remembering the premier Chinese chef in my life: Auntie Di.

Plus, I just heard someone call out  “Ai yo”!

David is guaranteed seconds.

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Chinese Braised Pork Belly

The most difficult part about this recipe is sourcing some quality pork –  I recommend Berkshire pork raised naturally so that you are dining on healthy, fine fat.

2 tbsp              organic canola oil

2 lbs                pork belly

4 cups             chicken stock

2 tbsp              soy sauce

2 tbsp             Shaoxing wine or cooking Sherry

2 tbsp             granulated sugar

1                      stick cinnamon, broken in half

2                      whole star anise

3                      garlic cloves, smashed

2                      green onions, cut into 2-inch lengths

2                      dried red chillies, chopped

1 tsp                ground Sichuan peppercorn

Preheat oven to 275 F. Heat oil at medium-high in enamelled cast iron pot and brown pork belly on all sides. Add stock, soy sauce, Shaoxing wine, sugar, cinnamon, star anise, garlic, green onion, chillies and Sichuan peppercorn. Bring to a boil.  Cover with parchment paper and lid and place in the middle of the oven.  Cook for 2 hours or until meltingly tender.

To serve on steamed bao, place a chunk or shredded mound of pork belly inside, drizzle with hoisin sauce and garnish with freshly chopped coriander and peanuts.

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Steamed Bao Buns

This is a simple dough that’s easy to make.  You’ll be thrilled with the sight of these soft and fluffy bao once they are steamed. (T&T or any large Asian supermarket will have plenty in the frozen section if you aren’t up for the task.)

1 tsp          instant yeast

2 tbsp                 granulated sugar

Pinch                  salt

1/4 tsp                 baking powder

1/4 tsp                 baking soda

1 cup                  warm water

2 1/3 cups   all-purpose flour

Canola oil

In mixing bowl, combine yeast, sugar, salt, baking powder, baking soda, flour and water and mix with dough hook for 3-4 min.  Let dough rest at room temperature in the bowl, covered with plastic wrap, for 1 hour or until it has doubled in size.

Turn dough out on to a lightly floured surface and divide into 12 pieces, shaping each into a ball. Roll a ball into a 6 inch x 2 inch piece, baste lightly with oil, lay a chopstick vertically in the middle and gently lift the top of the dough over the bottom, pulling out the chopstick to leave a small tunnel. Arrange on a parchment paper covered baking sheet and cover with a clean tea towel.  Repeat with remaining balls. Let dough rest 30 min to double in size.

Cut the parchment paper around each bun and place into a hot, covered steamer for 12 minutes. (Buns can be frozen once cooled and steamed to defrost).

All about eggs

It wasn’t until I was 18 and had declared myself a vegetarian that I learned to love eggs. They were cheap and they were easy. Besides, my mother had gifted me a handy little omelette pan with a Teflon surface and a hinge down the middle. With a little butter, a bowlful of beaten eggs and some grated cheddar, I became a master omelette maker.  You couldn’t really screw up.  I’d cook both sides of the pan until the eggs set, grab the handle and flip right over left to create a covered semi-circle pan with a perfect omelette hidden inside. Voila!

Once I moved to a real omelette pan, without the help of my hinged pan crutch, I discovered the complexity of omelette making. It was the fillings and my overwhelming greed for them, that was my ruin. The more onions, bacon, sausage, veggies and cheese I piled inside, the harder it became to make The Flip.

IMG_2092Truth be told, my problem was the eggs.  I really didn’t like them plain. If I’d practiced with a bowlful of very frothy, very beaten eggs, and had let them slide into a buttery, perfectly heated cast iron pan, they might have had a chance. They just needed time and singularity, so their eggy selves could focus on setting rather than accommodating all those interlopers.

But no.  I wasn’t liking that.

So I moved on to the frittata, which requires no flip and invites a lot of flavour pairings. Tomatoes, basil and goat cheese. Onions, potatoes and gruyere.  Spinach and feta.  Chorizo, sage and fingerling potatoes. The list is endless.  But still, we’re talking eggs which are either perfectly cooked or instantly ruined. The time between the two is a millisecond. I’ve made many a loaded frittata enwrapped in dry, rubbery, unappealing eggs. Ick.

IMG_2088So I moved over to poaching. Again, I was saved by a gizmo.  This time it was my grandmother Nonnie’s poaching pan, a lovely deep, copper bottom saucepan fitted with a rack in which four egg saucers nestle inside.  One fills the pan with water, covers with the egg rack and follows with a lid. Once the water comes to a boil, the hot little saucers are ready to be buttered and loaded with a freshly cracked egg.

Sensible cooks turn off the heat to manage this feat, but I preferred to dab a bit of butter inside each poaching, steaming cup, pick it up and swirl. I’d burnt my fingers doing this for serial years, swearing profuse profanities, believing all short order cookers made similar sacrifices.

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Credit: Nick Nausbaum

Then a plumber set me straight.

He had just repaired a toilet upstairs and was passing through my kitchen during a particularly raucous swearing and poaching event. He shook his head and asked,  “You don’t like to use a fork, huh?”

I shot him such a mean look of incomprehension, I’m not sure why he bothered… but he did.

“Here’s how ya do it,” he said, taking a fork and placing the middle two tines into the slot above each flat lifting surface. Woa, the fork became a handle. This mechanical feature had eluded me my entire poaching career with this pan!

egg shot_3_EDIT!!!!

Credit: Nick Nausbaum

“I like my  yolks well done,” he said as he waved the hot poaching cup perilously close   to my face.

I, too, used to like my yolks dry and thoroughly cooked, encased by a jiggly, gelatinous white. But real egg lovers like their yolks runny, seduced by that golden, buttery elixir as it spreads over toast, rice or potatoes.

Thus, the hash.  Nick told me about his recipe the other day. It’s a hearty start to the day and makes great leftovers.  Besides, the pan is loaded with everything but eggs until the last five minutes.  Nick’s Hash needs a big, oven-safe skillet to take on all the ingredients. It must include potatoes to get dubbed a hash and doesn’t have to rely on sausage, bacon or ham. Plus, it stars black beans which call out for other southwest flavours like hot peppers, cilantro and even avocado.

Best of all, the egg cooking portion is a no-brainer. Make room in this hash for eggs by making little wells that can contain their roundness but are forgiving if it’s a bad break.  The eggs will commence cooking the minute they nestle into their wells but they will all come to the finish line at the same time thanks to your preheated oven. Just three to five minutes at 400 F promotes even egg cooking as the cheese bubbles up and turns golden brown.  Because it’s not all about the eggs, is it?

hash tag_EDIT

Nick's Hash

It’s always a challenge to cook eggs for a crowd. Here’s a filling take on brunch that’s easy to assemble and finish in the oven. Sliced avocados are nice on the side.

2 tbsp olive oil

1 red onion, chopped

1 red bell pepper, chopped

2 roasted Yukon gold organic potatoes, skins on, chopped

1 jalapeno, chopped

10 grape tomatoes, quartered

½ tsp each ground roasted cumin, smoked paprika

1 cup grated Monterey Jack or Cheddar

2 cups black beans

4-6 eggs

Salt

Freshly ground black pepper

Fresh coriander, finely chopped

Avocado, sliced or cubed

Preheat oven 400 F.

In a cast iron or oven-safe skillet heat oil, sauté onions, bell pepper, potatoes, jalapeno, cumin and smoked paprika for 5 min. or until potatoes are browned. Add tomatoes and sauté until the tomato juices release. Turn off heat. Distribute  cheese and black beans evenly over the surface. With a spoon, create a well for eggs and crack them in. Bake in oven for 5 minutes or until eggs have set.  Season with salt and pepper.  Serve garnished with fresh coriander and sliced avocado.

Heavenly Thai lamb curry

There are certain foods that just have to be cooked in coconut milk and spiked with chillies.  Lamb is one of them.  It’s a meat that not every carnivore adores, but those who do, wax rhapsodic when imagining lamb braised slowly alongside coconut milk infused with Thai curry paste.  I choose a yellow oneIMG_6523 for this because it contains lamb-loving turmeric and other warm spices like cinnamon and cloves.  This is a curry that must include potatoes and I was happy to toss in three different organic varieties, starring a dark, red-skinned beauty with deep purple flesh. Lots of green herbs should swim through every Thai curry.  I always keep a stash of lime leaves in my freezer and wished I had fresh Thai basil to toss in, too.  I improvised with half a frozen cube of homemade basil pesto and was happy with the results.

I like to braise this curry slowly in my enamelled, cast iron Cuisinart Dutch oven with a IMG_6522layer of parchment paper tucked over the curry before it is lidded.  The parchment paper layer prevents any drop of fragrant moisture from leaving this slow-cooked beauty. Just before serving, I brighten these heavy flavours  with tamarind paste, fresh mint and coriander.  Cooking time varies depending on the cut of lamb and whether it contains bones or not. Don’t stop braising until the meat is fork tender.  Enjoy!

 

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Thai Lamb and Potato Yellow Curry

This is a rich and unctuous curry with lamb swimming in a turmeric-tinged sea of coconut milk and potato chunks.

2 tbsp canola oil

5 cloves garlic, chopped

1 red onion, chopped

1/4 cup Thai yellow curry paste

2 jalapeno peppers (seeds included) , chopped

2 lbs boneless lamb shoulder

1 can coconut milk

1 sprig fresh basil or 1 tbsp basil pesto, frozen

3 tbsp fish sauce

6 kaffir lime leaves

5-6 medium organic potatoes, red, yellow and purple, sliced in half, skin on

2 red bell peppers, sliced

¼ cup tamarind paste

¼ cup chopped mint

¼ cup chopped coriander

In a large dutch oven  heat oil on high. Cook garlic and onion 2-3 minutes or until softened, add curry paste and stir fry until oil starts to exude from the paste.  Add jalapenos and lamb and stir-fry until browned, add coconut milk, basil/pesto, fish sauce, and 6 kaffir lime leaves.  Bring to simmer.  Cover with parchment and lid and braise in 300 F oven for 1 hr, add potatoes and red bell peppers, cook another hour with parchment and lid or until meat is tender and juicy.

 

Bakers, get equipped!

Like any profession, bakers rely on good tools to get the job done right.

Oven: Choose electric over gas for reliable heat with less temperature fluctuation.

56002807935__20AF0A01-FB77-4879-BA5B-3C96AC0E91F6Dutch ovens or Lodge Pan combo cookers: When Jim Lahey of Sullivan St Bakery published his no knead bread recipe it was a revelation to the baking world. What, you don’t need to knead? But what you do need is the right pot for artisanal dough: one that is small enough to create its own steam at the beginning of the bake and is heavy-duty enough to retain really high heat. I love my Lodge combo cookers. You can’t beat the crust, crumb and lift of a loaf baked in a combo cooker. Put it in the oven, preheat to 500F and wait about 30 minutes before loading the dough into these cast iron cookers. They will be VERY hot and extra caution is needed when working with these pots. Most ovens can fit two combo cookers on a single rack at the bottom of the stove.  What makes a combo cooker perfect for baking bread is its shallow bottom and tall lid, making it easy to slide delicate risen dough on to its surface and a lid large enough to allow a full rise. My only complaint is that is does not accommodate large oval loaves.

Parchment paper: I started my bread career with pizza dough. Every cookbook and instructor called for cornmeal.  “Dust your bread paddle with ample cornmeal and that sticky dough will quickly slide off and into a hot oven” was the refrain. But it didn’t exactly slide and too often the cornmeal burnt in the oven and ruined the aroma and underside of the crust.

Enter parchment paper also called “bakers’ paper”.  Things don’t stick to it. I use a small amount to line a paddle or baking sheet and never experience the horror of dough not moving in one whole, shaped piece into the oven. I leave my loaves on parchment for the entire bake and it does not harm or affect the crust negatively.

img_6314.jpgBannetons and baker’s linen: Artisanal bread dough is risen in baskets to preserve the shape and to create a pretty swirling flour pattern on the finished crust. You plunk the shaped loaf in bottom-side-up, let it rise, then place a parchment-paper-lined paddle or rimless baking sheet over it and flip the loaf back over, right side up. I dust my bannetons liberally with rice flour which prevents sticking and also creates nice, white contrasting lines on the finished crust. I never wash my bannetons, because moisture encourages mildew. I use a natural bristle brush to clean the bannetons and store them in a dry, airy cupboard. Round bannetons should be no wider than eight to nine inches in diameter or your loaf will be too big for the combo cooker. Another option is baker’s linen liners that can be fit over medium sized bowls.

Shower caps: I used to put my rising banneton dough in closed plastic bags to prevent the dough from drying out until my friend Dushka suggested hotel shower caps. They fit snugly over the top of a banneton or linen-lined bowl and you can look inside to gauge the progress of your rise without having to take the shower cap off.  Brilliant! Never leave a hotel without taking one home.

IMG_6437Razor blades and lamés: Just before your risen dough goes into the oven, it is time to score. A score allows hot air to emit during the bake without tearing open the crust. Bakers traditionally scored loaves in distinct patterns but nowadays it has become an art. The angle and depth of a score will affect the final shape of the loaf. I like to hold a slightly curved sharp blade between my thumb and index finger but others like to use a handle for the razor called a lamé. A sharp, serrated knife can do the trick, too.

Oven gloves: While the underside of my arms are littered with burn scars, I actually use and highly recommend oven gloves.  Heavy duty, extra-long gloves are the best protectors but hard to find.

56071585550__DC3B82DE-6B7F-4052-B2F4-EF322A7717ECDigital scale: I cannot bake without a scale, I am so used to weighing versus measuring flour, starter and water.  You need a scale that can “tare” back to zero so that you can put an empty bowl on the scale, tare to zero, add a pound of flour and tare back to zero, add 8 ounces of water and tare back to zero and so on. Zyliss makes a light, flat scale about the size of an Ipad.

IMG_0312Just three ingredients: Flour, water and salt: Organic flour makes a big difference.  I buy unbleached organic hard white flour by the 10 kg bag and am happiest when it is locally milled and has a date stamp to guarantee freshness. Locally grown, freshly milled whole rye, kamut, spelt and red fife all make incredible sourdough bread.

IMG_6472Salt.  Avoid iodized salt and choose sea salt. I like the big bags of coarse grey French salt from Ile de Noirmoutier that I found at Thrifty’s.

Water.  If your local tap water tastes great, use it.  In Toronto I bake all my bread with spring water.

Creating steam: Professional bread ovens have built-in steam injection. Bakers want steam during the first 10 minutes of baking for good crust development. If your oven does not supply steam, you can supply it yourself with a spray bottle or ice cubes. Sprayed water may crack oven tiles or pizza stones. Ice cubes won’t.  Heat a small aluminum baking pan in the bottom of the stove and toss in two or three cubes after you load the dough into the oven.

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A marmalade is born

I was starting to lose hope that I’d ever make a good jelly. All those loose and liquid results with fresh-from-the-orchard plums and cherries were getting me down. That is, until the Pilates Girls started to talk about marmalade – in the heat of summer, no less.  They started to swoon over tales of Seville marmalade, rolling their eyes in ecstasy remembering every slurp and mouthful, every stolen spoonful.

IMG_6465So very British of them, I thought in disdain, but their marmalade reverie was so very infectious, slipping deep into my flavour brain.

I took another look at the big fragrant box of Sungold cherry tomatoes I had ripening in the cellar under layers of paper bags. I’d harvested them on the vine – neon green – a good month ago. Now, their colour was like a pale sunrise, a little yellow, a little orange. They just weren’t their seductive, deep pumpkin orange selves, so sweet-as-sin in the heat of summer.

IMG_5723Here they were, half-ripened in my dark, unfinished basement and I could not ignore them. Nor could I forget that bag of organic lemons I’d bought recently…

I scanned the internet and was smitten with the cinnamon and saffron one author had added to her ridiculously difficult and multi-stepped recipe.  I stole the flavour combination and started to pluck the green stem ends clinging to every SunGold.

I had to make this easy. I reached for my  heavy, turquoise Cuisinart enamelled cast-iron pot that has braised heavenly concoctions all spring and summer in my oven, closed shut with the extra guarantee of a sheet of parchment paper.

I sensed this beast was up for the task. No lid. It had one hell of a thick base and a wide rim perfect for boiling off fruit into gelled perfection.

IMG_6274I had three and a half pounds of SunGolds the size of marbles. They looked so dainty and pretty  as they tumbled into the pot alongside cups of sliced lemons. I cranked the gas up high. In just a minute, liquid started to form in the base. After a short, five minutes the mixture was sloshing about. I dumped in the organic sugar and all that fruity sweetness shimmered to a gloss.

Promising, dared I hope.

I brought it to a boil and the skins made an orange line around the perimeter. I stirred occasionally, not continuously, and it wasn’t sticking or burning to the bottom. It made quick work of the liquid, reducing it down by a third. The orange line was a full inch above the liquid’s surface and it thickened and hardened.  I slid a knife under it and realized the line had gelled.

At first my wooden spoon dripped like fast falling rain when I tipped a maiden spoonful out and over the surface.  But in 20 minutes it was starting to cling, clump and sheet. All the little drops left in my spoon-resting dish started to sparkle and reflect.

IMG_6469I ventured into this recipe carrying the baggage of a failed gel-maker. After the first ten minutes, I pulled out the Pomona’s Universal Pectin. I even filled a small bowl with sugar, ready to mix with the pectin powder to prevent that nasty clumping and frothing. I started to calculate, figuring this batch would need four teaspoons each of Pomona’s calcium water and pectin.

But just as carrying an umbrella stops the rain from falling, so did the appearance of that pectin box. It started up the natural gelling – instantly. Turning the spoon through this golden elixir took the push of oatmeal porridge. It was thick.  It would gel.

And, it smelt exotic. The earthy tomatoes had collapsed into skins swirling in a shiny syrup littered with tomato seeds. Lemon skins turned translucent, limping seductively on the spoon.  The cinnamon stick I’d cracked in half was swelling up like a wine cork. I waited for the final moment to gingerly tap the saffron bottle and let a few strands fall into the mixture to bleed their gorgeous tint. A marmalade was born.

Whether you pair this with cheese or slather on toast, this savoury-sweet marmalade will dance on your tongue. The lemon cuts the sweetness and the saffron slightly perfumes. A dollop on grilled fish offers delicious contrast and just a smidgen is the right condiment for dhal and rice.  With any luck and lots of gelling, this marmalade will make you swoon just like those Pilates Girls.

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SunGold Tomato Saffron Marmalade

  • Servings: 7.5 250 ml jars
  • Print

3 ½ lbs green sungold cherry tomatoes, ripened in basement in paper to a yellow-orange OR ripe red grape tomatoes

2 lbs organic lemons, seeded, quartered and sliced thinly

4 ½ cups organic white sugar

1 stick cinnamon, broken in half

Pinch saffron

In large, very wide and heavy enamelled caste iron pot heat tomatoes and lemons (without any liquid) until they sweat and emit liquid.  Add sugar and cinnamon and cook on high, stirring for 40 min.  Add saffron, check for gelling point. Process in sterilized jars with ¼ inch headspace for 10 minutes.

Time to get started. Sourdough!

I get asked about sourdough starters a lot and am happy to give some of my starter away to any aspiring baker. Often these people look really anxious when they take their baby starter away from my kitchen. They know this is a big step in their Bread Life and for many, a challenging one.

Not everyone is as obsessed with sourdough bread as I am. But I’m always willing to share my passion and grow more sourdough bakers.   IMG_4946

Last week it was my friend Alana from Food Bloggers Canada.  She asked for a starter recipe in a simple text and had no idea I would send back a two-page email.  But she’s going to give it a go and I hope you, dear reader, might try making your own starter, from ground zero, following these instructions.

Why have a starter? Well, without one you simply can’t make sourdough bread and  taste all of its deliciousness made with your own two hands. Like any living ingredient, if you starve or neglect it, it will die. It needs your nurturing to start your bread.

Why do you want to eat sourdough? Bread made slowly over the course of a few days has rich, layered flavours, tastes completely better than industrial, high-yeast, high-gluten bread and is often easier to digest.

If you follow my Instagram feed, you may want to bake sourdough because it’s such a looker  with its scored golden crust and large open crumb. But practice makes perfect.  I still get excited each and every time I open up my oven and see a well-risen loaf.  I still make mistakes, too. I love the mystery of bread-baking and its complexity. Good baked bread depends on many variables: timing, flour quality, temperature and the ripeness of your starter—to name a few.  The only way to get to know these principles is to dive in and flour up your hands.IMG_4302

Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipesis my bible. Here’s his five-day “liquid levain culture” – bakers’ speak for sourdough starter.  I recommend that you go the extra mile and stretch this out to an eight-day process for best results.  Once you have this basic culture or starter, you can keep it alive for many years… but not decades!

When I attended the San Francisco Baking Institute in 2015, master baker Didier Rosada laughed in disdain when I bragged about the number of years I’d kept my starter alive.  After attending the course, I made a new starter to replace my teenaged one and did not regret the flavour-filled results.  Now, three years later, it is time for me to start afresh again.

Before you make your initial starter mix, consider what time works best to refresh (a.k.a. nurture) morning and night.  I like the 7pm/7am time frame.

Day One: Initial Mix

4.8 oz              organic whole rye flour

6 oz                 spring or distilled water

.2 oz                honey

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 24 hrs. (This will look stiff and hard with very tiny bubbles on the underside after the first 12 hrs.)

Day Two: Two Feedings

5.5 oz              Initial mix (use half of Day One and throw out the remainder)

1.2 oz              organic whole rye flour

1.2 oz              organic, unbleached hard white flour

3 oz                 90F spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Repeat (or refresh, in bakers’ speak)  in 12 hrs. Yes, you will have to throw out half of each mixture when you refresh. (After each feeding, you will watch it transform and grow, doubling, even tripling in size and smelling very sour.)

Day Three, Four, Five, Six and Seven : Two Feedings per day, every 12 hrs

5.5 oz              Initial mix (half of your last batch, throwing out the remainder)

2.4  oz              organic, unbleached hard white flour

3 oz                 spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Repeat (or refresh, in bakers’ speak)  in 12 hrs. This white starter will bubble up and grow faster every day and night and should be ready to bake with by Day Seven.

Okay, now you’ve got your starter, but how are you going to keep it alive?  You’ve got to feed it,   once a week. Here’s how:

3.5 oz initial mix/mature starter

3.5 oz organic, unbleached hard white flour

3.5 oz spring or distilled water

Mix the ingredients well in a glass bowl and cover with plastic. Let stand in a warm area (75F to 80F) for 12 hrs. Refrigerate and refresh once a week.IMG_4753

How do serious bakers keep their sourdough starter alive?  They bake every day.  After they build a bread’s initial levain, they remove about an ounce and use that to start the next dough. All you need is an ounce or two to kick-start a bread! The most powerful, active and flavourful starters are those that are refreshed or used every day or two.

Before you get started, make sure you have a scale because serious bakers weigh all their ingredients. I like to use this Zyliss version found at Canadian Tire for $20 or less. You need a scale that can “tare”. That means you can put an empty bowl on the scale, reset to “O” (or tare) then weigh your rye flour, tare again to 0 then pour in and weigh the right amount of water. Tare away!

Local Sourdough

Whether you call it  Herd Rd Sourdough, Toronto Sourdough or Katmandu Sourdough,  its flavours and ingredients will entirely depend on where you bake it. (Adapted from page 153 of Bread: A baker’s book of technique and recipe)

Levain Build

4.8 oz              organic, unbleached, hard white flour

6 oz                 spring or distilled water

1.3 oz              ripe, mature starter (refreshed in the past 24 hrs)

Combine in a medium glass bowl 12-16 hrs before you make the final dough. Make sure the bowl is large enough for the levain to triple in size as it grows and bubbles up. Keep covered at room temperature. (I like to make this late at night, right before I fall asleep.)

Final Dough

1 lb 8 oz           organic, unbleached, hard white flour

3.2 oz              organic whole rye flour

14.8 oz            spring or distilled water

Levain Build minus 1.3 ounceto be reserved in fridge for tomorrow or the next day’s bread

Step one: Autolyse

Add all the final dough ingredients to the mixing bowl and mix on first speed until it forms a shaggy mass.  Cover with plastic and let stand 20-60 min.

Step two

Add .6 ounce/1 tbsp sea salt to the autolyzed dough and mix 1-2 minutes with a dough hook

Step three:  Bulk Fermentation at room temperatureIMG_3401

Transfer the dough to a large oiled bowl or oiled tub and cover for 1 hr 15 min

Stretch and fold the dough four times, lifting the dough to its longest extension, folding and pressing it back down,  repeat three times, turning it by a quarter each time.

Cover and leave at room temp for 1 hr 15 min

Step four: Shape two loaves, place in well-floured bannetons and cover with shower caps.  Refrigerate 12-24 hrs. Gently flip each loaf on to a parchment paper-covered tray, score and slide into preheated  Lodge pans or Dutch ovens.  Bake covered at 500 F for 20 min, carefully remove lids, reduce heat to 460 F and bake 20 minutes or until golden brown.

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An ode to damson plums

Many, many, moons ago, my friend Nora suggested damson plum jam.  I’d never heard of damson and didn’t know where I’d find them.  I was a novice canner, having put up my first batch of Seville marmalade sometime after all those Millennials were born.

There was a crew of us cooking ladies, back then, crowded in my steamy kitchen with my blue enamel canning pot frothing on the back burner. As dozens of Bernardin jars jiggled and clanked through sterilization, we peeled off Seville skins, arguing over the presence of white pith or not, before piling the peels on top of each other, slicing them into teensy strips no wider than a toothpick. Someone measured cup after cup of granulated white sugar, while the bossiest among us stirred circles of hot, sputtering, bubbling orange fruitiness.

We were kitchen warriors and we all agreed on everything except something:  The Gelling Point. The conversation grew even more heated when damson came into play.

But first, I had to find the little gems and naturally, I called Tony at The Harvest Wagon on Yonge Street, deep in the heart of fine food shopping La La Land.

IMG_6115Tony and I were on a first name basis ever since I interviewed him for a newspaper column and he revealed that his Rosedale customers didn’t really care about price (!)  All they wanted, he claimed, were tidy piles of the best looking bounty from every corner of the globe.

“Check in weekly,” he said cheerily before we hung up.

It was early September and all the other plums — yellow, green gage, Italian prune — had come and gone.  I was doubtful that this alien called damson would be found.

“Not many people request it,” he’d said earlier in our call. “But I’ve got a supplier in Quebec.”

Tony never let me down. A week later, I walked out of his store with a million dollars’ worth of the sour little gems in their dark purple suits. Nora and I set to work. After two hours of hard labour, we were at that crucial juncture that stops any jam purist from hyperventilating and pulling out a box of commercial pectin.

It’s called the gelling point but should be called pointless, since all the indicators leading to it – heat, natural pectin content, flavour and consistency – meld into one big messy, sugary fruit concoction stirred by a bossy broad who makes the call, erroneously, again and again.

That, my dear readers, is little old me.

I have this thing with jams and jellies. I always want to make them but get burnt out at the eleventh hour and make a totally impatient miscall on the gelling point.

Nora knows not to listen to my pectin theories anymore.  Like any sensible cooking partner, she calmly looks the other way when I hold up a jam-dripping wooden spoon, perilously close to her snout, and screech out “It’s sheeting!”. She just laughs when I open my freezer and yank out a little frozen plate. She snorts when I plonk a test blob of cooking jam on the frozen surface and claim that it’s “rippling just like the cookbook says” before our very eyes.

Nora doesn’t take any of my gel guff anymore. She makes the call. But when she’s not by my side to slap me into gel sanity, things go wonky.

It’s why my sister and I have made a tradition of basting Easter lamb with my secret Seville sauce that annually never quite gels into marmalade.  It’s why David found himself penning Blum Sauce on a recent Herd Road batch in my desperation to distract BC gel-sniffers.

I know few will believe me, but my most recent foray into the damson plum realm rewarded my tenaciousness with two crowning glories: a damson jam that neatly gelled without added pectin and a cake that is simply Plum Easy.

Plus, I didn’t have to call Tony, my uh, supplier.

I simply turned on Google Map and made my way to Sheila’s house in Mill Bay where a box of fresh-picked damson plums sat near her back door. Sheila had recently helped her friend denude a backyard tree of these little wonders and asked me after a Pilates class if I knew what to do with damson.

IMG_6113Did I know?

Memories of Nora’s knowing, raised eyebrows filled this cook’s heart with glee as David and I poured the purple mountain of Sheila’s picked damsons into a bag. We hurried them back to my new fancy kitchen where I started to measure and conjure up culinary fun times.  I had 9 lbs 3 oz of the little orbs to hand pit and was ready to go into a coma after the first dozen when I  developed a brilliant sleight of hand.  I dug my fingernails into each plum’s belly, eviscerated it,  separated pit from parent, netting 8 lbs 6 oz.  of readied product in just under an hour.

I was about to wrap up all those pits in a cheesecloth bag and add them to my jam session until my wiser-self asked Dr. Google a thing or two. I learned those plum pits weren’t going to improve my gelling odds, were devoid of natural pectin and might come in handy as pie weights. I washed, dried and bottled up 2 cups of the almond-like babies.

Then I made My Best Ever Damson Jam spiked with homegrown hot peppers which I present to you now, knowing that you’re unlikely to make it, but might not resist the second very easy recipe offered below.

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My Best Ever Damson Jam Spiked with Chillies

  • Servings: 7-8 250 mL jars
  • Print

Okay, you’ve read my story but ask Nora how good damson jam is. We may not agree on gelling point but we are both bedazzled by damson plums’ puckering, rich flesh and sweet skins that shrivel into dark magical ribbons when served on a toasted slice of home baked levain.

3 1/2 lbs pitted damson

5 cups granulated white sugar

3 tbsp fresh lemon juice

1 1/2 tbsp lemon zest

1 1/2 tsp coarsely ground dried red hot peppers

Preheat oven to 400 F.

Bake damson plums in a large baking pan, covered with aluminum foil for 30 min.

Transfer cooked damson into a large, wide-rimmed pot, add sugar, lemon juice, zest and ground chillies bring to a rapid bowl, stirring for 10 minutes until the magical gelling point occurs.

Ladle jam into sterilized jars leaving ¼ inch headspace and process for 10 min. 

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Plum Easy Cake

Sheila alerted me to this famous find, originally published by the New York Times and authored by Marion Burrows as “Original Plum Torte”.  Phooey.  This isn’t a torte, it’s a dead easy cake that you can pile upon its spooned batter a ton of ripe cut fruit, sugar and spice.  Here’s my over-the-top version with Damson.

¾ cup granulated sugar

½ cup unsalted butter, softened

2 eggs

1/2 cup unbleached white flour

½ cup spelt, kamut or whole wheat

1 tsp baking powder

Pinch of salt

2 cups pitted and halved Damson plums

¼ granulated sugar

2 tbsp lemon juice

1 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter a 9-inch springform pan, line the bottom with parchment paper.

Whisk together sugar and butter in a mixing bowl until light and fluffy. Beat in eggs.

In a small bowl, combine flours, baking powder and salt.  Fold dry ingredients into wet to create a stiff batter.

In a medium bowl, combine plums, sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon.

Spoon batter into pan, level with a spatula and top with fruit.

Bake 1 hour or until the top is golden brown and a cake tester comes out clean.  Remove from oven, allow to cool for 10 minutes, trace a butter knife around the edges of the pan and de-pan.

Serve warm or at room temperature.

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Fabulous fava

I bought my first fava beans on the Danforth, years back when Fruit King still stood on the corner at Logan. They were big beans.  You couldn’t really miss them when perusing the usual green grocer contenders, be it potatoes, carrots or spinach. But in this basket was a stranger. Unlike their skinny cousin, the humdrum green bean,  fava beans were bulging, army-green giants with shiny, leathery skins and brown, pointy tips.

Eternally curious when it comes to fresh produce, I stood staring, incredulous at these five-inch-long, soft and spongy beans until I took a sharp elbow in my side from an elderly Italian woman dressed in black, head to toe.

No, it wasn’t an elbow, it was the corner of her shopping basket that she was in the process of shoving between herself and me as she stretched out one determined little hand towards the pile, ferreting out the greenest, plumpest ones.

“What are these?” I asked and she spat out  “fava” like it was a revolting, dirty word. Then she stopped for an instant, looked up from her clutch of beans and examined my ignoramus face just long enough for me to instantly understand the meaning of “evil eye”.

I decided to move towards the spinach and declined fava that day.

Fast-forward to now. My fridge is full of Ziploc bags stuffed with freshly picked fava beans from my Cowichan Valley garden. These aren’t any, run-of-the-mill fava beans, these are organic beans from bean grower Sal Dominelli on Gabriola Island.  He’s dubbed this fava variety “Exhibition Longpod Fava” and instructions on the seed packet called for sowing in “early spring”.

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Pre and post shucked fava

Owing to the carpet of snowbells under the magnolia and the clutch of daffodils ready to pop in our courtyard, I figured the cold wet soil of mid-February was ready to receive these seeds (dried, brown fava beans).  Amid the fog and incessant rain, I tucked them one-by-one into the soil telling myself the heavy layer of wet, chestnut leaf mulch would keep them warm enough to germinate.

Two months later, the bean stalks were already 18 inches high and needed stakes. In March, they had  white flowers with big black eyes.IMG_4717

In June, long, fat beans were growing up towards the sky.  The phallic nature of my crop almost had me blushing.  A hiking friend and fellow farmer sagely shared “they’re ready to pick when they drop down.”

Meanwhile, back in Toronto, my favourite wannabe-Italian, Randy of Scottish origin, had already tucked into fresh fava flown in from Italy that he’d purchased on the Danforth. Toronto was experiencing its usual lack of spring with a heat wave in late May.

“All day long, I can do this!” Randy enthused, sitting outside on his new deck, his mouth full of Pecorino cheese and freshly shucked fava, savoured with a “young Chianti, slightly chilled”.

My hiking friend shook her head and sighed when I told her of this flavour pairing.

Anything tastes good with wine and pecorino,” she scoffed.

Randy, I explained, was a dedicated  fava aficionado.  Who else but this mangiacake would de-robe the fava, not once, but twice, before he ate it?

My fellow fava farmer wasn’t listening to any of this gibberish, knowing full well the work and time invested in simply growing these beans. Shucking fava from the pod was an add-on compared to the ease of  bean brethren like snap or pole, who are ready to cook right off the vine.

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Fava Beans in Pod

Once shucked, the spongy fava casing reveals a loveable row of five to six, light-green-tinged beans each sweetly indented. I shucked out bowl after satisfying bowl full of beans and carted away bags full of fava shell refuse for the compost.

Scientist that I am, I measured my harvest. Ten cups! Was I up for Randy’s second peel out?

I gave a couple of beans a good try only to discover that the tight skin encasing each bean needed a small knife or long fingernail to remove it. Even still, I was nicking and separating the inner goodies. The process per bean, took the same amount of time as it did to simply shuck one pod and see five to six beans drop out.

It was, in the wise words of my engineer father, “A statistical nightmare!”

Unless you are Randy who awaits fava season with bated breath, ready to shuck all pods then tenderly hand-peel, each and every individual bean that comes his way. Last time we spoke, he cautioned me against over-cooking, too, suggesting that no fresh fava bean should be sautéed for more than a minute.

No wonder I reached for a glass of chianti when pondering culinary creations for the multitude of green orbs lingering in my fridge. I crowded Arborio rice with the, um,  little buggers to create a risotto failure that even my carb-loving husband declined. I made a luscious Mexican black bean soup and finished it with a scattering of fava, cooked only a minute or two (following you-know-who’s recommendation). The fava beans bobbed in the soup like buoys and I watched my guests politely skim their soup spoons around them.

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Dragon Tongue Beans

Finally, I had a fava epiphany, based on the cooking laws of terroir and desperation. My garden was spilling over with not just fava but an heirloom, purple streaked pole bean called Dragon Tongues. Wouldn’t they be perfect with the fresh pattypan squash I had pounced on at the Duncan farmers’ market that day? The cooking gods and I collaborated on a very fusion, very vegan dish that can be served hot over rice like a curry. Or it can be served French haute at room temperature, just like a Provencal ratatouille, tucked inside a lettuce leaf and garnished with toasted pumpkin seeds. C’est ca.IMG_5530

No matter what you do, be sure to serve with wine.  While Randy’s go-to is Chianti, he also recommends two crisp Italian whites: Vermentino di Sardegna or Falanghina.

And if your larder isn’t plum-full of fava and dragon tongue pole beans, substitute fava with lima beans, and try yellow wax string beans instead of the heirloom variety. Raise a glass to Randy and remember that 2016 was the International Year of the Pulses.

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Herd Road Bean Curry

Herd Garden Bean Curry

If you are obsessed enough, consider pulling out the just-cooked fava beans and squeezing each one out of its jacket, returning the deep green fava hearts to your curry. (Use my name in vain if you burn your fingers.) Like most curries, this will taste best the day after you cook it. Leftovers freeze well.

2 tbsp organic canola or sunflower oil

½ large sweet onion, chopped

2 garlic, chopped

1 garlic scape, finely chopped *optional

2-inch piece of ginger, peeled and finely grated

1 tbsp finely chopped or grated fresh turmeric OR 1 tsp turmeric powder

1 tsp cumin seeds

2 tsp coriander powder

1 cup tomato puree or passata (I like Mutti brand)

2 cups water

1 Poblano chile, membrane and seeds removed, thinly sliced

4 cups Dragon Tongue beans (topped, tailed and sliced in half.  Julienne if really thick)

½ yellow bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces

½ orange bell pepper, sliced into 2 inch x 2 inch pieces

2 cups fava beans

½ tsp sea salt

½ tsp hot smoked paprika (I like La Chinata)

Fresh sage, sliced

Toasted pumpkin seeds

Heat oil in a large pot add onions, garlic, garlic scape, ginger and turmeric and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add cumin seeds and coriander powder and cook another minute. Add passata and water and bring to a boil.  Add poblano chili strips, Dragon Tongue (or wax beans) and bell peppers.  Cook, simmering uncovered for 5 minutes.  Add fava beans and cook until tender.  Season with salt and paprika.  Serve hot or at room temperature garnished with sage and toasted pumpkin seeds.

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Left: Peeled fava hearts Right: Bean casings

 

Naturally cumin

The first time I tasted cumin in Chinese cooking was in Beijing with Ling. It was the year before the Summer Olympics and we were hard at work, travelling from one meal to the next, arduously food reporting for More magazine, analyzing and recording every delectable mouthful that came our way.

The Cumin Find was at lunch. It was a rustic Xi’an-style place, with small wooden tables, rickety seats and glass panes smudged with layers of steam and dirt. We had spent a hungry, stomach-growling hour crisscrossing alleys and laneways searching for this hideaway. Ling kept our search ignited with enticing tales of hand-pulled, perfectly chewy noodles swimming in vast bowls of rich, heavily spiced lamb broth.

A smiling, pudgy cook-owner wearing a white pillbox cap and apron plonked two steaming bowls down before us while yelling something over his shoulder in Shaanxi dialect. Ling and I shared knowing smiles. This place was the real deal.

We dug in, chopsticks on the right, ceramic soup spoon on the left to catch any remnants that fell from our eager lips. Steam clouded Ling’s glasses and I could have sworn I heard her purr after each mouthful. She tried to ignore me, but my questioning was incessant.

“What you talking about?” she blurted out between gulps.

“I want to know what’s in this.  I’ve never tasted this spice in Chinese noodles before.”

“Oh” she said. “Ziran

I heard ziran and figured she had said “Naturally.”

I let her pause and collect her thoughts. She was used to me asking a lot of questions on this trip, especially mid-bite.  I waited. Ling continued to revel in the meal… she’d moved on to her roujiamo or Chinese hamburger. She gripped the clay-oven flatbread bun with both hands, inhaling its charcoal overtones.  Stuffed with fat, soft morsels of grilled lamb, this Xi’an wheat flatbread bun is famous for soaking up loads of gravy without falling   apart.  I watched a dribble of lamb juice trickle down Ling’s chin and detected that purr, again.

“What is it?” I asked again.

“I told you,” she said. “Naturally.”

Despite the prospects of a cold lunch.  Despite the look of irritation on Ling’s almost-always angelic face, I pressed on, asking her to write down the two characters that were pronounced zi and ran. Patiently, Ling wrote down the zi character on the palm of her left hand with her right index finger, making sure I was watching every stroke as she forged the invisible ink used by Chinese when pantomiming how to write a Chinese character. She wrote ran stroke by stroke even slower this time, sensing all the ignorance painted in my blank stare.

She stopped her invisible writing and we both groaned. I hadn’t recognized any of the gibberish she had scrawled.

I knew how to write naturally in Chinese but this ziren– this ziren she’d just written on her palm – spelled out a spice that was unnaturally Chinese: cumin.

The Xi’an chef had tossed crushed, whole cumin seeds into a firey wok glistening with oil and loaded with garlic and dried, hot red peppers, elevating our simple bowl of hand-pulled noodles into a culinary epiphany for me. Cumin had seeped into the juicy lamb chunks, too, washing away any untoward mutton-ness and caressing it with a nutty, deeply Middle-Eastern allure.

I was hooked – even if the Chinese pronounced cumin like its homonym naturally.

Ling’s face was flushed. We had shared a tall bottle of Beijing beer to soothe the zing of all the hot dried red peppers flecked throughout the soup. I looked around. It seemed as if everyone in Beijing had apple-red cheeks during this cold, autumn spell. Just the day before, Ling and I had run outside the Temple of Heaven, trying to escape gusting winds that lashed against our skin like ice daggers. Our week in Beijing was to end tomorrow and Ling put down her chopsticks, wiped her chili-oil smudged lips and made a promise for Toronto.

“More ziren,” she smiled. “You love it!”

Eleven years later, I sit in her refitted and renovated kitchen and watch Ling cook in her wheelchair. She zips from one end to the next, pulling small packages of meat from the freezer, scooping Jasmine rice from a lower bin and standing on her one leg to reach for items above the counter. I have brought her a big bag of raw cumin seeds and she rolls her wheelchair before the stovetop range and turns the front burner on high. In minutes, the beige-green seeds in the dry, hot wok turn chocolate brown and the room fills with a smoky, nutty aroma. Deftly, Ling tips the contents of the hot wok on to a plate. With a wooden spoon, I guide the seeds into a coffee grinder.

Some seeds scatter and we say “Ai Ya!” in unison.

I hold the top of the grinder down firmly as the machine whirls the seeds into powder. When I lift it off, twirls and wisps of cuminy, smoky clouds twist in the air.  Ling and I both poke our noses in the cloud and swoon.  Naturally.

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Spicy Cumin Beef

 Last spring, I enjoyed many cooking sessions with Ling and her fine cook, Lina who hails from Hunan Province where they eat as many – if not more – hot chillies than they do in Sichuan. Whenever Ling purchases flank steak, she slices it up into small packages for the freezer. During the prep for a dish, Ling lets the meat defrost slightly until it’s easy to slice up sliver-thin, toss into a bowl and marinate for at least 10 min.

150 g/5.2 oz    frozen flank steak

2 tsp                corn starch

1 tbsp              sherry/Shaoxing wine

1 tbsp              light tamari

2 tsp                roasted ground cumin

2 tbsp              vegetable oil

3                      oblong shallots, thinly sliced

3                      bell peppers (red, yellow and orange) thinly sliced

Pinch of salt

1 tbsp oil

1-inch piece    fresh ginger, peeled

3                      garlic, chopped

½ tsp               Ling’s fresh chili paste (see below)

1-2 tsp             chili oil

1 tbsp              Shao Xing Wine

Green onions, chopped

 

Slice defrosted flank steak as thinly as possible. Put in a bowl and marinate with corn starch, wine, tamari and cumin  (while you chop the veggies or put on some steamed rice).

Heat wok on high, add oil and stir-fry shallot and bell peppers with a pinch of salt until tender (about 3 min). Transfer to a plate and reserve.

Without cleaning the wok, add another tablespoon oil, put beef into the wok and pat it down flat to the surface to sear for 1 minute without stirring.  Once it is white around the edges, stir it until no longer red. Add stir-fried onions and bell peppers, fresh chili paste, chili oil and wine. Splash in some water if you want it saucier. Garnish with finely chopped green onions.

 

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Ling’s Salted Red Chili Peppers

Thinly slice 20 fresh hot red peppers. Place about a third in a small glass bowl or mason jar, sprinkle heavily with salt, layer with another third, salt, and add the final layer, the salt. Add a few drops vodka.  Mix with chopsticks and refrigerate. Beware, this is HOT.

 

 

 

 

 

A tale of two quiche

You’d think at my senior age, I’d know not to burn down my kitchen in the name of quiche.

It was a dilemma only I could manufacture. Six people were about to descend on my home for dinner. As per usual, I was running on octane, wrapping up meal prep at 60 miles an hour whilst two, deep-dish quiche peacefully baked in my oven. I remember sighing with relief as I settled the eggy creatures in my oven, calculating the expansive hour ahead. There was lots of time to get to the finish line.IMG_2765

My list was short (for me). Set the table and shake up a fresh salad dressing. Deal with a sink full of dirty dishes, wipe all the counters and set out appetizers. Whirling through the kitchen and across the dining room and back again is a dervish act I habitually spin in the nth hour.

But this time there was a catch: I smelt something.

When I peered into the oven to check on my half-baked quiche, a torrent of smoke billowed out. Oddly, butter was dripping off the crust and pooling on the oven floor, right beneath the red, hot, oven burners. I slammed shut the oven and rushed to open the sliding glass kitchen door to air out the smoke.  Mid-pull on the kitchen door, my ears were assaulted by the high-pitch scream of the smoke alarm. Instead of turning off the oven, I hit and slammed the alarm’s reset button three or four times. But it continued to wail.  I ripped the alarm right off the ceiling.

Pure manic panic flowed like a drug. I raced to my front door and commenced fanning the door back and forth like an Egyptian slave with a fig leaf – Cleopatra-style. Surely this would staunch the smoke, I prayed. Nearly hallucinating, I opened the oven again, my face assaulted by a newer, denser wall of smoke. I dipped my oven-gloved-hand into the grey mass to gently jiggle the quiche. Was it done?

IMG_2764Now who was I kidding?  Both me and my saner-self had seen the timer.  It was just 30 minutes into the one-hour bake. One jiggle of the pie sent yellow, eggy waves a coursing. Dinner for eight was doomed. If the quiche didn’t stay in the oven, despite the smoke and my concurrent mania, I’d have nothing to show for.

I was a professional, for God’s sake!

A slew of obscenities suddenly spewed from my mouth. I should have listened to my gut yesterday when I read that outlandish instruction: “Mix the pie dough by hand, pinching the fat to the size of hazelnuts with your fingertips.”

Every baker knows that hazelnuts are way too big. No wonder my rolled-out dough had huge yellow, (buttery) polka dots marring its surface like birth marks.

Like a novice, I had done what Bo Friberg deemed right on page 62 of “The Professional Pastry Chef”. I followed his Flaky Pie Dough and believed in him when he wrote “Unless you are making a large amount, always mix dough by hand.”

Wasn’t this a large amount? Aren’t these recipes for professionals, I kept wondering as I filled a huge bowl with a pound and a half of flour then laboriously broke and pinched over a pound of butter into it for half an hour to create four (count them, four) crusts.

Why had I forsaken cookbook author Bonnie Stern – with her pea-sized morsels and quick, food processor method – that had guided my pie-making career for decades?  Now a sparkling pool of fat was at the bottom of my oven, glistening ominously.

IMG_2771Despite better judgement, I continued to bake and smoke and bake, making a frenzied relay from front door to back, swinging doors madly until I saw The Flames.

At that instant, I bolted upstairs making my tenth worst decision of the day: I grabbed my plant mister. I was sliding down the stairs, arms flailing, calling out to the walls “Fire, Fire!”  when my stepdaughter Emma walked in the front door.

“The oven’s on fire!” I screamed, then yanked open the oven door, stupidly squirted water on an oil-based fire and closed the door. The flames still roared.

Resigned, I looked at Emma and said softly  “Call 911” in the calmest, most intelligent voice I’d procured in the past hour.

But no sooner did Emma reach into her purse and collect her phone did the bright orange flickering subside! Completely. We both stood staring in disbelief, waiting a whole, long minute until I opened the door, coughed through the haze and gingerly removed our dinner.

Emma opened windows. I flapped the front door.  And we laughed a smoky laugh.

IMG_2769The guests arrived 10 minutes later.  The table wasn’t set.  The salad and its dressing had to be made. The kitchen was a disaster zone: dishes, food, crumbs everywhere, not to mention the air drenched in smoke. I needed a valium but found a glass of wine instead.

“Tonight, we are dining on rare, smoked quiche,” I announced during the toast.

We dug into creamy, cheesy contents bordered by an ultra-buttery, uber-crisp crust. Not one person detected any je ne sais quoi. Several hummed about the leeks, noting their subtle sweetness.

I admit, maybe Smoky the Bear or Sparky the Fire Dog wouldn’t recommend my actions, but satiated and full, my dinner party was unanimous: those two stellar quiches were a lot better than no dinner (or house, or kitchen) at all.

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Quiche with leeks and goat cheese

  • Servings: 12, or two whole quiche
  • Print

Quiche is quick to prep (especially for visiting vegetarians) if you have a frozen crust tucked in your freezer.

2 tbsp butter

2 small leeks*, sliced

½ cup crumbled plain goat cheese OR 1 cup grated old cheddar or gruyere

4 large or extra-large eggs, beaten

¼ cup cream or whole milk

¼ tsp sea salt

Big pinch freshly grated nutmeg

Freshly ground black pepper

1 frozen, deep dish pie shell

Preheat oven 400F

In a large frying pan, heat butter at medium and sauté leeks until soft and fragrant. Remove from heat and allow to cool before sprinkling over the bottom of your frozen pie crust. Distribute cheese evenly on top. In a large bowl, whisk eggs, cream, salt, nutmeg and black pepper until frothy. Pour into pie shell, leaving at least half an inch between this liquid and the top of the crust (as the egg custard will expand and balloon over the edges if there is no headroom). Just in case, place the uncooked quiche on a baking sheet (to catch any spills)  before baking.

Bake 20-25 min or until golden brown and set. (If you see the quiche balloon or dome up during the last minutes of baking, remove from the oven immediately to prevent a split in the cooled custard.) Let it cool on a rack for 15 min before serving.

* No leeks? Substitute with ½ cup sliced shallots or onion.

 

Memoir of a muffin

When I tasted my first bran muffin at the corner of College and Bathurst at The Mars, it was a revelation. I was 19, wore a peasant skirt over Kodiak boots and rolled my own cigarettes with Drum tobacco. I thought myself street-wise but was anything but … Just incredibly curious and always, always hungry. Thus, that first ravenous bite into a Mars bran muffin – dark with molasses and dense like black forest cake – is pure gold in my food memory bank.

My boyfriend Bob was also a revelation. Nothing about him resembled where I came from. He hadn’t grown up in North Toronto or gone to Upper Canada College (like my brother, father or grandfather) but he sure knew enough about betting to pique my father’s gambling instincts  and instill a gin rummy playing camaraderie between them.

One summer evening at a family cottage dinner, my stately grandmother innocently asked “And what is it that you do, my dear?” while passing Bob the gravy boat.

“I’m a bookie,” chirped Bob grinning like a cherub, thrilled to make this reveal. Nonnie promptly cleared her throat and my grandfather mumbled “Holy sailor” but no one else asked another word, quickly sweeping this unpleasant news under the nearest carpet.

IMG_2896But back to the muffin. The Mars muffin. It was big, filling and dotted with plump, fat raisins. They were served hot from the oven, sliced in half with a large pat of cold butter wedged inside and fully melted in seconds. Diners, breakfast eggs, take-out baklava and percolated coffee played large in my coming of culinary age. These gigantic muffins were new to diners in the 70s and customers would line up in front of the cash register hoping to leave with half a dozen of these towering –no, glistening – babies stuffed inside a Mars embossed, white cardboard box.

Near that same cash register, along the long, white Formica diner bar, were stools occupied by inner-city characters of dubious distinction. Bob seemed to know them all. They had nicknames like Baldy, Joe the Dipper or Car Fare. Some came “packing” and others had Mafia affiliations following them like shadows.

Bob, being Bob, liked to break away pieces of my W.A.S.P. veneer by unexpectedly pushing me in front of one of these cigar smoking men at the Mars saying, “Hey Dukey, meet my girlfriend Lynn.  She’s a Haver-girl.” I seethed at these embarrassments…  but they didn’t stop me from moving to New York with Bob a year later and attending an Ivy League college while he worked as a bouncer at Studio 54.

IMG_2898But back to the muffins.  I made some today in my West coast kitchen as the rain pelted across a gray, foggy horizon in a day-long deluge. I searched through my baking boxes and pulled out a bag of wheat bran, which now looks oddly old school next to newer fibrous fads like chia, flax or hemp. I found some spelt which adds such friendly nuttiness to any baking equation.

I mixed the dry and wet ingredients in two separate bowls. Quick breads and muffins all like this preparatory segregation with just minimal combining prior to the bake. Crosby’s molasses is a necessary must if you want real tasting bran muffins. And remember to measure the oil in the measuring cup first as prep for the molasses, which will slide out of the measuring cup effortlessly if you do.

Unlike the Mars bran muffin, these ones are good for you: moist, satisfying and rich. I’m willing to place a double-or-nothing bet on Crisco as the trans-fat source of those yesteryear muffins. Yet still, I savour that muffin’s nostalgia and happily munched on all these memories when creating, baking and eating my latest version.

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Banana Bran Muffins

Healthy, fibre-full muffins with a rich, moist texture and just a hint of banana or apple flavour.

Dry Ingredients:

1 ½ cups          wheat bran

¾ cup               all purpose flour

¾ cup               spelt

¾ cup               raisins or chopped dates

1 tsp                 cinnamon

1 tsp                 baking soda

1 tsp                 baking powder

½ tsp                salt

Wet ingredients

2 eggs              mixed

1 cup               mashed, really ripe bananas (about 2 ½) OR unsweetened apple sauce

¾ cup              plain yogurt

½ cup              milk

1/3 cup            molasses

¼ cup              vegetable oil

Preheat oven to 400 F

Mix dry and wet ingredients separately in large bowl.  Combine until just mixed. Use a ¼ cup measure to dollop into large paper muffin cups. Bake 20 minutes.  Makes 12 large muffins.

 

Chapli Kebab

Chapli Kebab

 

Kebabs TP1 lb ground lamb or beef

1 finely diced medium tomato

1 finely diced medium onion

1 egg, beaten

1 tbsp ground coriander

1 tsp salt

1 tsp hot pepper flakes

1 tsp crushed garlic

Butter, melted

½ cucumber, diced

1 tomato, diced

Naan or pita bread

Sumac

In a large bowl, combine ground meat, tomato, onion, egg, coriander, salt, hot pepper flakes and garlic. Marinate for at least 2 hours or overnight. Soak bamboo skewers 30 min., if using.

Shape kebabs on skewers or as patties.

Baste skewered kebabs with melted butter and cook on a hot grill or under broiler for 2-3 minutes on each side or until no longer pink. Alternately, heat butter in a hot frying pan and cook patties 2-3 minutes per side or until fully cooked.

Serve on naan or pita bread with chopped cucumbers and tomatoes and a dollop of yogurt sauce. Garnish with a sprinkle of sumac.

Yogurt Sauce:   Drain one cup of plain yogurt in a cheesecloth-lined sieve over a bowl for one hour. In a medium bowl, combine drained yogurt, one diced jalapeno pepper, two tablespoons each of chopped mint and fresh coriander, a splash of lemon juice and salt to taste. 

 

Bear plum jam

We had been painting the white picket fence for hours in the afternoon shade. Big, black crows screeched incessantly, punctuated by the soft, nasal bleats of nuthatches echoing through the forest trees. David wore a black shirt and shorts that were splattered with white splashes of our 1-2-3 primer.  We had been working for hours in the hot, BC summer sun.  With only two sections of finished fence behind us, it was time to stop.

David took the paint brushes inside the house to wash up.

I wrapped my hands around the bars of our trusty wheelbarrow and started to amble towards the driveway. Full of dried-up blackberry bush, the wheelbarrow’s contents slid and scratched against the metal sides, the wheel rumbling against the dry, clay earth.

No crows, no nuthatches, but a sudden loud crashing of branches broke out.

I looked towards the orchard and watched a massive, black bear come falling out of our plum tree, some 100 feet away.

When I say massive, I mean the size of a Smart car. Black and furry. Yet ominously silent.

My jaw slack in awe, I watched him land on all four paws and hurry off. Bears don’t gallop, or race. They truck mysteriously fast like an ambling thunder cloud, a sheet of dark light that thankfully went away, not towards me.

“David!” I yelped at the top of my voice.

Worried the bear would hear me, I toned it down to a whisper-shout with, “There’s, there’s a bear!”

“Whaaaaaat?” David emerged, hands still wet from washing the brushes. “Where?”

“He ran that way,” I said, pointing towards the orchard. “Don’t follow him.”

But of course, David did, thrilled and happy, calling back gaily, “It’s the wild west, baby.”

Minutes later, we stood beside our bear-mangled plum tree. A large, deep gash from his claws streaked down the trunk. A large heap of black, seed-studded scat lay nearby.  Up above, broken branches hung in disarray. Half-eaten plums littered the ground.

I reached up and pulled down a plum and popped it in my mouth.

Soft, and deliriously sweet and sour, this orange-yellow plum was perfectly ripe.  Time for harvest. Thank you hungry bear for finding the ripest plums in the orchard. This was a wild, but timely alert.

David walked back to the garage and carried out the ten-foot ladder. He propped it beneath the tree and I climbed up into the branches. Balancing a bucket on the top rung, I started to pluck plum after tiny plum from the tree.

Novice fruit farmers, we thought the ladder, the bucket and all these plums would just come together effortlessly but it’s an awkward balance:  Reach too far, and the ladder topples; grab too many, and some fall. There are always more to be harvested that are too high, too far, too out of reach.

Still, in no time, our bucket is full and we carry our cache back to the farm house.

Star Anise Plum Jam

With so many plums, my jam creativity has blossomed. I’d rather spice up a jam than leave it plain. This jam can go on toast, pair beside pork or chicken or make a dramatic debut on your next cheese plate. The licorice notes of star anise are strong in this jam, so feel free to cut in half if you want just a whisper. But don’t mess with any of the other ingredients.

6 cups plum puree (use yellow, orange and red plums) about 6 lbs whole fruit

5 cups sugar

2 inches ginger, finely grated

4 star anise

1 stick cinnamon

1 dried red hot pepper, cut in half

To pit plums, put in a large pot and fill with just enough water to cover. Bring to a boil and cook just a minute or until skins start to peel off the plums. Carefully drain out and discard all the hot water. Transfer plums to a large bowl and leave at room temperature to cool enough to handle or refrigerate, covered with plastic wrap, for up to 3 days. Using a sieve, remove pits, taking care to reserve as much plum puree and skins as possible. Wrap the pits in cheesecloth, knotted with kitchen string.

Put sugar in a microwave-safe glass bowl and heat for 3 min on high.

In a large pot, combine plum puree, heated sugar, pits (tied in cheesecloth), grated ginger, star anise, cinnamon and hot dried red pepper. Bring to a strong, rolling boil, and cook for 10 minutes stirring constantly or until jelling point is reached. (Jelling point can be determined by placing a spoon into the mixture and watching how the jam falls off.  When the drops start to drip in long strands or sheet together, jelling has been reached.)

Using sterilized jars (boiled for 5 minutes), fill jam mixture into jars ½ inch from the top, run a thin spatula around the inside of the jar to remove air bubbles, wipe off tops of jars with a clean cloth, top with softened lid (placed in a bowl of boiling hot water for 5 minutes) and closed with ring, finger-tight.

Process for 5 minutes (covered with at least 3 inches of boiling water).

Yields  8 1/2   250 mL jars

The saga of a starter

I recently gave some of my sourdough starter to a dinner party guest. I had known Donna only a few hours when I passed her the salad and piped up, “Want some of my starter?”

She just seemed like the kind of lady who I could trust with a living piece of ­­my baking.

Donna had made a splash of an entrance earlier in the evening, ambling up the pathway with an armful of gifts: a two-pound bag of daffodil bulbs she’d arduously dug out of her garden; a spray of wild daisies and sea mist from her fields; and a large fistful of dill that she urged me to dry and re-seed.

The twain had met and I couldn’t stifle the urge to give back.

IMG_7883But that night, after the guests departed and a very full dishwasher rumbled in the kitchen below, I lay sleepless, fearing Donna had left my precious offspring in the trunk of her car, or indoors in a smelly closet, or amid cobwebs in an attic storage room.

I emailed Donna the next morning, very early, nagging with the bossy subject heading, “Feed your sourdough starter”.

I’d barely pushed “send” when my phone rang.

“I fed it,” she reported instantly. “I gave it 3.5 ounces of distilled water and 3.5 ounces of organic white flour. It has some bubbles. What next?”

IMG_8618What Donna should do next is enough to fill a book. I’ve been kneading and mixing and pulling lovely mounds of dough for almost two decades and am still transfixed by the mystery of it all.

Is the starter active and vibrant enough to use? Am I using the right flour? How’s the temperature: Should we rise at room temperature or refrigerate? Does an overnight rise mean 8 or 12 hours? Did I stretch and fold the dough enough?  Am I shaping properly?  Will we get a better rise if I bake in a combo caste-iron cooker or a steamed oven, outfitted with unglazed quarry tiles? Does it matter if I wash my KitchenAid mixer bowl with soap or should I just clean and scrub with hot water? Should the bulk ferment take one and a half hours or three? Is it better if my starter has been kept alive for a decade, or a month?

Baking draws me in like a puzzle and rewards every time.

However, everything, I mean everything, predicates on a live starter. And Donna had to promise me she wouldn’t kill it.

After the first feed, I recommended she wait 24 hours then remove 3.5 ounces of starter, throw out the remainder and feed it with 3.5 ounces each of water and flour in a glass bowl that is big enough to let it grow three to four times in size. Mix it with a fork until smooth and fully dissolved, then cover with plastic wrap. If desired, mark the surface line with a piece of masking tape on the outside of the bowl so that rising progress can be  clearly gauged.

IMG_1093After each feed, Donna will get to know her starter better and better.  She’ll know how many surface bubbles appear, how high it can rise and that critical moment just before it drops and deflates.  After one to three days of consecutive feeding, she will watch her starter grow to its fullest potential within 8 hours. Now it’s ready to use.

I can’t tell Donna exactly when that will happen because temperature, flour and water all affect the outcome. As will the energy she gives – for the baking gods are always about us.

But once it’s ready, she can make a levain. If Donna bakes bread every day, she won’t need a starter because she’ll remove and set aside 1.5 ounces of her levain and use it in the next day’s levain. But that’s unlikely.  Donna has told me she wants to bake only once a week.  That’s why she needs a starter and this recipe.

The rest is all up to the magic of baking .

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50% Red Fife Levain

  • Servings: 2-3 loaves
  • Print

This levain highlights the richness of whole wheat without letting it overtake. Toast it for  breakfast with almond butter and blueberry preserves – bliss!

LEVAIN

8 oz               organic unbleached white

5.2. oz           water (spring is best)

1.3 oz                starter

Mix in a medium glass bowl until a stiff dough forms. Cover with plastic wrap. Ferment at room temp 12 -16 hours.

FINAL DOUGH

1 lb                 red fife or organic whole wheat

8 oz                organic unbleached white

1lb .6 oz         water

2 tbsp             honey

.6 oz                sea salt

Levain minus 1.3 oz (reserve in a small bowl in the fridge).

Put all the ingredients of the final dough in the bowl of a spiral mixer, mix for 3 minutes at first speed, then 3 minutes at second speed. Transfer to a lightly oiled large bowl covering with plastic wrap, or in a plastic tub with a lid.

Bulk fermentation at room temperature 2.5 hours, stretching and folding twice at 50 min intervals. (To stretch and fold, run your hand under cold water and use your wet hand to pull up the dough to as high as it will stretch, then fold over surface, pushing down firmly.  Turn the dough a quarter turn and repeat three times).

Preshape into 2-3 pieces for free form or sandwich loaves. Bench rest 5 min. Place into floured banneton or oiled loaf pans. Put in large plastic bags and close with twist ties.

Refrigerate 5-6 hours.

Preheat oven loaded with dutch ovens (if making banneton loaves) on second from the bottom rack at 500 F for 30 min. Invert bannetons loaves on to parchment-lined baking sheet. Score. VERY carefully place inside hot lidded dutch ovens, bake 20 min, remove lids, reduce to 460 F, bake another 20 min. or until golden brown. For sandwich pans, preheat oven at 460 F for 20 minutes and bake for 35- 40 min. spraying loaves with mister before closing oven door to provide steam.

Lemon ginger scones

I avoided scones for most of my life.  They were high-fat. Bland. Boring.

But scones magically changed when I savoured my first one with David.  They were our courting food.

We used to walk down to the Mercury Coffee Shop in Leslieville hand-in-hand, Kobe in tow. David would ask if I’d like a “bakery item” and I’d laugh and giggle like a star-struck teenager. We both had our hearts set on a certain scone that always sold out first: Lemon Ginger.

Little knobs of spicy-sweet ginger interspersed with lemon zest made for rich mouthfuls, melting our hungry hearts. These scones had just the right amount of heft. They weren’t one of those feather-light imposters that kept you guessing where the flavour was – but a divine elixir of butter, cream and flour.

We were in love.

Kobe, our elderly dog, was not.  He hated waiting outside the coffee shop tied to a pole and made sure we knew  his misery well with ceaseless barking.

That didn’t bother Sexy Santa one iota. Our favourite barista, his bushy long beard hiding his neck and cascading over his sternum, mindfully worked the espresso machine while we watched and waited, clutching the crinkly, white paper bag containing the last Lemon Ginger scone of the day.

Of course, they carried our favourite scone only three days of the week. It always sold out, leaving us wanting. Its rarity made every bite, every crumb, remarkable.

Like all good things, it didn’t last. Our barista packed up and moved to the west coast. A dreamy look used to cloud his face whenever he said “Vancouver” and “coffee beans” in the same sentence — then he left.

Kobe stopped barking and was laid to rest one cold March evening in our kitchen, his favourite room of the house, near his bowl and on his dog bed, tears streaming down our cheeks and the palliative vet’s as she inserted the needle into his thigh.

Without a Sexy Santa, the lattes just didn’t taste the same. Without Kobe, a leash-less, bark-less walk was unimaginable. The lemon ginger scone was forgotten.

Until one winter morning when I awoke with a craving and started to bake even before coffee. My B.C. kitchen was still new and awkward, the drawers and cupboards still confounding. I searched for oats and flour, smiling when I thought of their providence and mine. The butter and cream was locally produced, too. I figured everything but the dried ginger, lemons and sugar had been tilled, or milked, or churned on Vancouver Island and I was ready to recreate the scone we’d found in downtown Toronto.

Without a food processor, I used a pastry cutter to fragment the butter into tiny, pea size morsels. I didn’t sweat the fat content and poured on the whipping cream. I cribbed a scone recipe from Fanny Farmer and marveled at its low sugar content. I mixed and played and baked, making indelible marks on my nascent kitchen’s unfamiliarity and came out with a bakery item that is almost as good as our courting one.

 

Lemon Ginger Scones

So simple and easy, you can make these first thing in the morning for a decadent and maybe romantic breakfast.

1 ½ cups all-purpose flour

1 cup rolled oats

¼ cup sugar

2 tsp baking powder

½ tsp salt

Zest of one lemon

4 tbsp cold butter, unsalted, diced

½ cup dried ginger, chopped

2 eggs, beaten

1/3 cup cream

2 tbsp lemon juice

Preheat oven 450 F

In a medium bowl or food processor, mix flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, salt and lemon zest.

Cut butter into the flour mixture with a pastry cutter  or pulse in food processor until the size of small peas. Add ginger.

In a small bowl beat eggs with cream. Mix in lemon juice.

Fold egg mixture into dry mixture until just combined.

Mound dough in the middle of a baking sheet lined with parchment. Pat into an 8-inch diameter circle. With a large knife, cut the dough into half, quarters and eighths, wedging the knife down to the parchment paper and creating a decorative ¼-inch space between scones slices.

Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown on top.  Transfer baked scone mound on parchment to a wire rack and allow to cool 5-10 min before serving.