Monday, March 30, 2009

Bread Making 101

Today I decided to go back to basics. As in any craft you have to learn the basics and then build on those skills in order to master more difficult tasks. The wonderful book, "The Bread Bakers' Apprentice" by Peter Reinhart has been sitting unused on my shelf for 2 years. Today I finally opened it and decided to work my way through the recipes. Don't get me wrong, I know how to make bread. But I've never really thought about the hows and whys of breadmaking - I just followed a recipe and it would work or not.

So I am in the process of making a loaf of white bread using a pre-ferment or pâte fermentée. The idea is that the addition of a pre-fermented dough improves a breads flavour characteristics and enhances the overall maturity and taste. The pre-ferment I have started has been sitting on my counter for several hours and then will be in the fridge for 2 days in order to allow the yeast to mature and ferment the dough which will add a nice tanginess to the final loaf. The recipe is really just a basic white bread dough that is allowed to mature. If you make bread on a regular basis this is the same idea as using "old dough" or saving a piece of dough from today's dough to go in tomorrow's batch. This is the recipe I used from "The Bread Baker's Apprentice":

Páte Fermentée

1 1/8 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 1/8 cups unbleached bread flour
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp instant yeast
1 cup water at room temperature

Stir together dry ingredients and yeast. Add water and stir until everything comes together in a coarse ball. If you are using a Kitchen Aid, use the dough hook to knead, or knead by hand until the dough forms a smooth ball - about 4 - 6 minutes. Transfer dough to an oiled bowl and cover the bowl with plastic wrap. Allow the dough to sit a room temperature until it more than doubles in size. Punch down the dough to degas and then recover the bowl and refrigerate overnight or for up to 3 days.

This dough will be used as "old dough" in a french bread recipe I am planning on for later this week. I'll keep you posted!

Happy Birthday Emma!

Here is the cake I made for my daughter's birthday. As you can see she is a big "Twilight" fan so I made her cake in the shape of an open book. The decorations are the symbols from the books' covers in the series. The chess pieces, apple and ribbon are made from chocolate and the flower is made from gumpaste.

I have a tendency to go overboard when it comes to cakes for my family but I love doing it!! Happy Birthday Emma! Love, Mom xoxoxo

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Quickie Shortbread

Today I wanted to make some cookies because there were none in the house. I wanted a quick cookie but I didn't want to have to go to the store and buy ingredients because I was short on time and patience. I was looking in my cupboard to see what I could come up with ingredient-wise and happened to see a recipe on the back of the cornstarch box for shortbread. Not too many ingredients and everything was on hand so I decided to make them. They turned out so tender and buttery I was amazed that I had never made them before. Here's the recipe - remember to use a delicate hand when mixing these together so they don't get tough. It also helps to chill the dough for about half an hour if you want to roll them out.

1/2 cup Corn starch
1/2 cup icing sugar
1 cup all purpose flour
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened

Sift together dry ingredients. Blend in butter (I used the paddle attachment on my mixer) until a soft, smooth dough forms. Shape into 1 inch balls or chill dough for about half an hour and roll out and cut into shapes. Bake in 300F oven for 15 20 minutes until edges are lightly brown. Cool on rack Makes about 24 cookies.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Old cookbooks and a new hobby

One of my great passions aside from baking is collecting old cookbooks - the older the better. My collection started several years ago when I inherited a bunch of old cookbooks from an aunt. I didn’t really know her very well because she lived far away and was much older than my parents so I only really remember meeting her 2 or 3 times. But I did get to know her better through her books. Tucked inside a well-worn copy of a Fannie Farmer cookbook were hand written recipes and letters, correspondence between sisters and friends with recipes written in neat script included with news about neighbours and friends. I enjoyed getting to know my aunt a bit better and realized that we shared the same enthusiasm for baking and collecting recipes.

The next cookbook I purchased I found in a used bookstore in downtown Halifax, an Aladdin’s cave of used books. The red cover of Mrs. Beeton’s Cookery Book peeked out from a bottom shelf and I felt I had hit the jackpot when I opened it up to see ads from the early 1900’s and “receipts” and instructions for running a household. From there I started to search ebay and other used book stores and have been lucky enough to find cookbooks from as early as 1844. Each book carries its own story and history of its owner aside from the recipes included in its pages. I have books with names of their previous owners inscribed in fine ink with addresses in London, England and ones with extra recipes pencilled in on blank pages at the back. All of them carry a sense of personal history and memories from a time when a woman ran a household like a business and manners mattered. I often wonder how a book published in England in the 1800’s found its way across the ocean to Canada - probably in the hands of a young bride coming to start a new life in a new country.

These books carried information on not only how to feed a family but also how to work with servants, plan dinner parties, set tables and heal the sick. Dinner rituals and presentation skills were outlined in detail along with medicinal remedies for cholera, smallpox and influenza. In a time when the health and happiness of the family rested squarely on the shoulders of the woman in charge, these books were a guidebook for life. Although the original owners of these books are long gone their stories remain alive with me.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Hot chocolate for a cold day

Ahh, one last blast of winter (I hope!). It's snowing here in Nova Scotia so I thought I would offer my best recipes for hot chocolate - one white chocolate, one dark. These recipes are much richer and creamier than the hot chocolate from a mix so drink with caution to avoid chocolate overload!! Stay warm friends!

White Hot Chocolate - serves 4
· 2 cups milk
· 2 cups half-and-half cream
· 8 oz white chocolate, chopped
· 2 tbsp sugar
· 2 tsp vanilla extract
· 2 oz brandy, optional
· cinnamon sticks, for garnish

Directions:
White Hot Chocolate
1. Pour milk and cream into a heavy- bottomed pot and heat over medium low heat for 5 minutes. Stir in white chocolate, sugar and vanilla extract until melted.
2. For a grown-up treat, stir in brandy.


Dark Hot Chocolate - serves 4
Ganache:
8oz good quality bittersweet chocolate
1 cup heavy cream
Directions:
1. Chop up chocolate into small pieces and put into a bowl. Heat cream until boiling and pour over chocolate. Let sit for 2 minutes and then stir until smooth.
Heat:
2 cups milk
1/2 cup cream
2 Tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
Pour this mixture over your ganache and stir until smooth. Pour into cups and enjoy!!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Nova Scotia Oatcakes


Step into any bakery in Nova Scotia and you are sure to find an assortment of squares to tempt you. Amidst all of these delights you will notice a humble looking cookie known as an oatcake. Not quite a traditional cookie, it is less sweet and not as chewy as your typical oatmeal cookie. In texture it is closer to shortbread.

I was first introduced to them more than 20 years ago. As a young university student I found myself needing a cup of tea while exploring my newly adopted city and happened upon a waterfront coffee shop with a great display of oatcakes. I chose one dipped in chocolate and was surprised when I bit into it to find that it wasn't the oatmeal cookie I was expecting. It was, however, a perfect accompaniment to my tea.

Since then I've tasted many oatcakes but my favourite is a recipe I found tucked into an old cookbook I inherited from my Aunt. Simply labelled "Gladys' Oatcakes", this is the recipe I use when I'm craving one of these maritime treats.

2 cups oatmeal (not instant)
1 cup all purpose flour
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp salt
3/4 cup shortening
1/4 tsp baking soda
1/4 cup hot water

Preheat oven to 375F. Mix dry ingredients together then cut in shortening until mixture is crumbly. Add in hot water and stir until mixture sticks together. Turn out onto floured surface and press mixture together. Roll out to approximately 1/2 inch thick. Cut into squares or circles. Place on parchment lined cookie sheet. Brush with milk and sprinkle with white sugar. Bake in oven for 10-12 minutes, until golden around the edges.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Birthday Cakes

March is a busy month for me since both my husband and daughter have a birthday within days of each other. Of course I make each their own birthday cake – how could I not? Some cakes are more memorable than others. I remember being, literally, barefoot and nine months pregnant with our first child, and making my husband his favourite chocolate cake with raspberry filling. I was determined to make it no matter how big I felt because I knew that it would make him feel special but also because this was the last time we would celebrate as a couple – 3 days later we would become a family.

Since then our family has added another daughter and I have made many birthday cakes but the ones I make for my family are always the ones I love to make the most. Baking is a way for me to express my artistic side and also a way I show my love for them. I tend to go a bit overboard, especially when it comes to my daughters’ cakes and I have spent days making the perfect haunted castle, cheerleaders, Disney character, and butterfly cakes for them.

Cakes for my husband are carefully crafted and made to impress. This year’s cake was based on a banana split: banana chocolate chip cake with white chocolate filling covered in dark chocolate ganache and topped with dipped strawberries. Extravagant and over the top but filled with love and made especially for him.

My youngest daughter says homemade things taste better because they are made with love. I believe it.

Banana Layer Cake - adapted from Canadian Living magazine
3/4 (175 ml) butter, softened
1 cup (250 ml) granulated sugar
3 eggs1-1/2 tsp (7 ml) vanilla
1/2 cup (125 ml) sour cream
3 cups (750 ml) sifted cake-and-pastry flour
1-1/2 tsp (7 m) baking soda
8 oz (125 g) semisweet chocolate, chopped (I use chips and chunks)
1-1/2 cups (375 ml) mashed bananas

White Chocolate Icing:
3 cups (750 ml) whipping cream
10 oz (300 g) white chocolate, chopped
1 tsp (5 ml) vanilla

Dark Chocolate Ganache:
1/2 cup (125 mL) whipping cream
4 oz (125 g) semisweet chocolate, chopped

1. Cake: In bowl, cream butter with sugar until fluffy. Beat in eggs, one at a time, then vanilla. Beat in sour cream. Combine flour, baking soda, and chocolate; add in 3 additions to creamed mixture alternately with 2 additions of bananas, mixing just until flour is incorporated. Spoon into 2 greased and parchment lined 8-9 inch round pans

2. Bake in 325F (180C) oven for 35 to 40 minutes or until top springs back when touched. Let cool on rack for 20 minutes. Remove from pans and let cool completely.
White Chocolate Icing: In saucepan, bring half of the cream to boil; pour over chocolate in bowl, whisking until melted. Add vanilla. Refrigerate until chilled, 1 hour, whisking often.

3. On medium speed, beat chocolate mixture just until ridges hold shape. Beat remaining cream just until soft peaks form; gently fold into cake mixture. With serrated knife, slice cakes in half horizontally. Place a top layer, cut side up, on plate. Spread top with 3/4 cup (175 mL) icing; cover with single layer of bananas, leaving 1/2-inch (1 cm) border. Cover with 1 bottom cake layer, cut side down; repeat with icing and bananas.

4. Repeat with remaining top layer, cut side up, and some of the icing and bananas. Top with remaining cake layer, cut side down.

5. Using palette knife, cover cake smoothly with remaining icing. Refrigerate until firm, about 1-1/2 hours.

Dark Chocolate Ganache: Meanwhile, bring cream to boil; our over chocolate in small bowl, whisking until melted. Let cool for 20 minutes or until room temperature and still pourable.

6. Pour over centre of cake, spreading to edge with clean palette knife, if necessary, and letting some flow down sides. Refrigerate until firm, about 40 minutes, or up to one day. ** I found using a squeeze bottle to pour the chocolate gave me more control over the drips.**

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Home Made Oreos!


Oreo cookies are my favourite! One bite and they immediately send me back to my childhood, sitting at the kitchen table and enjoying an after school snack. I’ve come up with my own version, a bit more elegant but still yummy and a great way to involve the kids in a fun rainy day activity. Chocolate sugar cookies and vanilla frosting combine to make the perfect milk dipping, tea sipping cookie!

Chocolate Sugar Cookies
2 1/3 cups AP flour
¼ tsp salt
½ tsp baking soda
6 oz bitter sweet chocolate, chopped
1 cup unsalted butter
1 ¼ cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350F.
Sift flour, salt and baking soda together. Melt chocolate over a double boiler and then cool slightly. Cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add the egg and vanilla extract and mix well. Add melted chocolate and combine thoroughly then add the flour mixture in 2 batches, mixing well after each addition. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and shape into a disc. Wrap well in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour.
Roll out dough to about ¼ inch thick. Cut out rounds and place on parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 7 – 10 minutes, until cookies look slightly puffy. Let cool completely before icing.

Vanilla frosting
2 cups icing sugar, sifted
¼ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 tsp vanilla extract
Milk as needed

Beat the butter until smooth. Slowly add the icing sugar and then vanilla. Add milk, a tablespoon at a time until the icing is smooth but still thick. Put the icing into a piping bag and pipe mounds (approximately 1 tsp) onto one cookie and top with another cookie.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Fun in the Kitchen


I’ve always had an interest in baking and from a young age I would watch and “help” my mother in the kitchen. I had my own little tin baking set with wooden rolling pin and there would always be enough dough left over to make my own jam pie. While she scooped out cookies and rolled out dough, I would be up to my elbows in flour working on my masterpiece.

I still have that tin baking set but now my girls are the ones who use it. They eagerly help me out when I make pies and cookies, sneaking a bit of cookie dough and rolling out their own jam pies. I’m thrilled that they want to spend time in the kitchen with me because the time spent together is much more important than the product that results from our efforts. Baking is fun for us and we get to be silly, share secrets and sing off key to the music on the radio.

So when I’m asked for advice and recipes for baking with kids I always suggest keeping it simple. Children really don’t mind that much what the end result is – they just want to spend time with you. So whether you are making cookies, muffins or biscuits it doesn’t really matter. The act of being together is what is important.

Here is a quick and easy recipe to make with your children:

Berry Crisp

2 cups rolled oats (not instant)
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup flour
1 cup white cake mix
1 cup butter

Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Chop up butter and then add to dry ingredients. Using a pastry blender, knife or your hands, break up the butter and mix into the dry ingredients. They butter bits should be the size of peas.

In a greased casserole dish put 1/2 of the crisp mixture and pat down gently. Then mix together:

4 cups berries (I used blueberries and strawberries) fresh or frozen
1 cup white sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 Tbsp flour
1/2 plain yogourt or sour cream

Mix berry mixture well and then pour over crumb base. Top with remaining crisp mixture and pat down gently.

Bake in 325F oven for 30 minutes or until the fruit starts to bubble from the sides. Serve warm with ice cream!!

My Kitchen Garden


I’m not a gardener, I am a pastry chef. I know all about the 100 mile diet, buying local, sustainable living and greenhouse gases and how far my food has to travel to get to my plate. And up until now I didn’t care about it. I’m a busy mom and it is easier for me to go to the grocery store and pick out my food than to think about where that food comes from and its effect on the environment.


However, at the end of last summer, after spending more than $1500 to have a perfect lawn and ending up with weeds, I half jokingly said to my husband that we should just dig it up. That’s when the idea of a kitchen garden began to take root. I started visiting websites, ordering seed catalogues and imagining what it would be like to have a kitchen garden in my backyard. I could pick fresh lettuce and tomatoes to go with my dinner, eat beans right off the vine and introduce my children to what real food tastes like.


So here I am, early March, and the freezing rain has cancelled school for the day and the kids are looking for something to do. I have some seed packets and a little plastic greenhouse so I decide, although a bit early, to start our garden. I’ve got a general idea of what I want to grow – lettuce, tomatoes and cucumbers – but now I have to put it down on paper and figure out how to make it a reality.


I’ve figured out that what I want is a “potager” garden - a French method of gardening where the garden plot looks nice while still providing for the kitchen. This means including flowers and herbs – both edible and non-edible – in the layout to add colour and interest. So while the snow is still on the ground outside I’m plotting my backyard on a piece of paper and trying to come up with a design.
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