Monday, December 21, 2009

Oh Shoot..

Hi there. It's been a while..

Christmas time is always my favorite time of year. I love the lights and the music and all that anticipation. I also love how it is the one time of year where I eat cookies whenever I feel like it, which is usually multiple times a day. I bake, I work, I watch 'A Charlie Brown Christmas', I study for finals. When it comes down to it, I am one heck of a busy girl at Christmas time. I apologize for the lack of posts, but now I'm back. I promise.

Almost all of the 13 batches of cookies I baked are gone now, and it's a dang good thing. If I get offered another cookie anytime soon, I am afraid I just might have to [gasp!] say no. I've probably eaten my weight it cookies, which is appalling, considering how healthy I normally am. Normally I am eating legumes and raw vegetables all day. Christmas does some weird things to me. I think I've hit rock bottom though. I am completely sugared out. I've had enough cookies, enough candy, enough cake to last me well into next year. And speaking of years, a new one is just around the corner. We are standing on a pile of uncertainty that only a new year could hold, but isn't it exciting? Over the past year I've learnt that there is no sense in worrying about the unknown. The thing is that right now, in this exact moment, I am exactly where I am supposed to be. Not knowing is kind of scary, I guess, but I am eager and ready to jump right in.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Top Secret

Once upon a time, from 1992 to 1994, my family resided in a frighteningly cold city called Edmonton. Upon our arrival in August it snowed. My mom cried, my dad shrugged, and we all tried not to think of how long it would be until we could go back home to Vancouver. My dad was finishing off his PhD at the University of Alberta, while my mom stayed at home and desperately tried to protect us from frost bite. My brother and I loved to play in the snow and there were only two rules: 1. Balaclavas were manditory. And 2. If the temperature dipped below -20 we weren't allowed outside.

We lived in a modest apartment just off of Whyte Ave. I don't remember it much, except that in the few months of warm weather we got a year, the garden out front was filled with bright bulbous, red flowers that smelt like dirt. Also, one time a skunk decided to make itself a home right underneath our apartment building. That was unfortunate. The one and only thing I remember clearly about that apartment was a wonderful woman named Linda Chorney who lived on the same floor as we did. Linda was a friend of my dad's from school. She was an artist who had hair down to her bum and an apartment full of masks. I loved to go to her house because it was full of toys and sometimes, if I was lucky, Linda would french braid my hair. I vividly remember my brother and I running down the hall to her apartment to visit with her. She would make us butterscotch pudding and we would sit in the middle of the kitchen floor spooning that sweet creamy pudding slowly into our mouths.

When our first Christmas in Edmonton came around, Linda presented us with a gift that would change our lives forever: a box full of innocent-looking Gingerbread men. "Oh how cute!" was probably the first reaction. But my how we were caught off guard by the first bite- these certainly weren't the gingerbread we had previously known. It was the texture that threw us for a loop. You see, Linda's gingerbread are soft, tender, and slightly chewy. Our love for these cookies was instantaneous. We were hooked.
Lucky for my mom, we never had to endure another snow storm in August again and we didn't stay in Edmonton forever. In 1994 we said goodbye to Linda and moved back to Vancouver. Linda promised to keep in touch and that she did. Nearly every holiday of the year Linda would send us a package. It would be loaded with all sorts of goodies: festive stickers, little toys, and a batch of her soft little gingerbread men. We looked forward to these parcels with the approach of every season. We quickly came to realize that no distance could keep us from our gingerbread friends.

Linda eventually grew tired of Edmonton and moved to Victoria. The packages became fewer and fewer and eventually stopped all together. Surprisingly the world kept spinning and the holidays still came and went the same. We nearly forgot about the famous gingerbread altogether until...

It was Christmas time last year. I was shuffling through my dad's very unorganized, very large, very messy recipe book looking for something inspiring. A little brown envelope caught my eye. "Recipes" was scrolled delicately across the front of the envelope. Curiosity got the better of me then, and I am sure glad it did. Inside lay that top secret, highly-coveted recipe for Linda's gingerbread. Right then and there I stood in the kitchen and started screaming. This is true. And if this doesn't give you an idea of how incredible these gingerbread are, then I don't know what will. I had uncovered the top secret recipe that I thought was lost forever. It was some kind of miracle. I baked a batch that very afternoon. We sat around the dining room table slowly eating our gingerbread men with blissful looks on our faces. It had been a long time since our last rendezvous, but things still felt the same. It was comforting and oh-so familiar, like and old friend you haven't seen in years. We sat there, nibbling on arms and legs, wrapped up in memories of snowfalls in the middle of summer and the woman who started it all.
Linda's Gingerbread

The key to soft gingerbread, Linda writes, depends on three steps:
1. Make the dough soft (just firm enough so that you can transfer it from the work surface to the pan)! If the dough is too stiff, she suggests that you add a bit of milk. I however have never had this problem... you should be fine :-)
2. Cut the cookies thick!
3. Remove the cookies from the oven just before they are fully cooked. They will be soft when they leave the oven but they'll harden as they cool! I have found that 9-10 minutes does the trick for me.

1 ½ cups butter
1 ½ cups granulated sugar
½ teaspoon baking soda
2 cups molasses (I use just under two cups of cooking molasses)
3 tablespoons vinegar
7 ½ cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 ½ teaspoon salt
3 teaspoons ginger
2 teaspoons cloves
1 teaspoon cinnamon
¾ teaspoon nutmeg

Preheat oven to 350°F.
Cream together butter and sugar. Then dissolve baking soda in molasses. Add molasses mixture to creamed mixture along with vinegar.
Sift together next seven ingredients and add to creamed mixture. Combine thoroughly.

Turn dough onto lightly floured surface and roll to about ¼ of an inch thick. Cut dough with cookie cutter and transfer shapes to a parchment-paper-covered pan.
Bake cookies 9-10 minutes.

Yield: Makes a lot of gingerbread men. Fear not, for they freeze beautifully and make lovely, "life-changing" treats for all your friends.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

It's Begun!

It's December now, and whether you like it or not, the Christmas season is upon us. Last week I took it upon myself to climb into bed with a massive stack of old December issues from Bon Appetit and Gourmet, in pursuit of the perfect Christmas cookie. I am practically giddy at what I found, and so far I've made three different batches of exquisite holiday cookies.
I've heard that as you get older traditions such as Christmas and birthdays become less exciting, but for me, each year I get more and more into things. This year, for example, I had a birthday party for the first time since I was 16. As far as Christmas this year goes, I actually had a sit down conversation with my mom about what she wants me to bake for her parties and, of course, for our family. These are the conversations I dream about. The ones where people are asking me to bake them excessive amounts of sweets. I don't know exactly what it is but it's a fact: I just keep becoming more involved, more enthusiastic, and more excited every year.
Just the mere mention of Christmas baking should put a smile on your face and a burning desire in your heart because between me and you, I have some AMAZING treats to share.
I thought I'd start things off with something simple and sweet. Essentially you are going to make a buttery, slightly crunchy, sugar cookie and then top it with semisweet chocolate, crushed candy canes, and a modest drizzle of white chocolate. It is the kind of recipe you are going to make when you are home alone with your brother and sister, left to your own devises for dinner. It's a straightforward recipe and the result is wonderfully festive. This recipe isn't anything fancy really, just a twist on a holiday favorite, but there is something about these cookies that is ridiculously addictive. Perhaps is the added crunch from the candy canes. Or maybe it's the buttery, crumbly sugar cookie crust. Whatever it is, you won't be able to keep yourself from grabbing just one more piece.

Chocolate Peppermint Bark Cookies
Adapted from Bon Appetit, December 2009

I think it kind of goes without saying that the higher the quality of the chocolate you use, the better the overall result is going to be. I generally go for, and highly recommend Callebaut chocolate, but Lindt or Perugina will do just fine.

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
2 cups all purpose flour
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 large egg yolk
6 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, chopped
½ cup finely chopped peppermint candy canes (about 3 ounces)
2 ounces high-quality white chocolate

Preheat oven to 350 F. Spray 13 x 9 x 2- inch metal baking pan with nonstick spray. Line bottom of pan with long strip of 9-inch-wide parchment paper, leaving overhang on both short sids f pan. Whisk four and salt in medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat butter in large bowl until creamy, about 2 minutes. Gradually beat in sugar. Continue beating until mixture is light and fluffy, stopping occasionally to scrape down sides of bowl, about 3 minutes. Beat in vanilla, then egg yolk. Gradually add flour mixture, beating on low speed just to blend.

Drop dough by tablespoonfuls into prepared baking pan, spacing evenly. Using moistened fingertips, press dough to form even layer over bottom of pan. Pierce dough all over with fork.

Bake cookie base until light golden brown and slightly puffed and edges begin to come away from sides of pan, about 30 minutes. Place pan on rack; immediately sprinkle bittersweet chocolate over. Let stand until chocolate softens, about 3 minutes. Using small offset spatula, spread bittersweet chocolate over top of cookie in thin even layer. Immediately sprinkle chopped peppermint candies over.

Stir white chocolate in medium metal bowl set over saucepan of simmering water until melted and smooth. Remove from over water. Using fork, drizzle white chocolate all over cookies. Chill until white chocolate is set, about 30 minutes.

Using paper overhang as said, lift cookie from pan and transfer to work surface. Using large knife, cut cookies into irregular pieces.

Store in refrigerator in airtight containers between layers of waxed paper.

Yield: Makes about 36 cookies

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

It Ain't So Bad...

Vegetarians have it hard during the holidays. Over the course of three months, my family will have consumed four turkey dinners. In my opinion, that is completely over the top, especially being the only person who doesn't actually eat the stuff. Normally I am a good sport. I load my plate with stuffing, green bean casserole and brussel sprouts. I don't even like brussel sprouts, but it's slim pickings during turkey dinner and a girl's gotta eat. With turkey dinner number three quickly approaching, I knew I needed to take matters into my own hands. And that is precisely what I did.
The solution lay within the pages of Bon Appétit. Just like that. Butternut Squash and Cheddar Bread Pudding! A recipe, I was promised, that would hold it's own during a meal that is most commonly dominated by a gigantic roast bird.
Aside from being slightly time consuming, the recipe was simple and straightforward. The hardest part was cutting the butternut squash, which did not seem to want to be cut at all. Eventually I had it sliced into neat little one-inch cubes, but really, I was not prepared for such a fight. Unfazed by my battle with the squash, I pushed onwards. And I am so glad I did...
The end result was everything I had hoped it would be, and then some. When we all sat down for Thanksgiving dinner, I took a pass on the green bean casserole and brussel sprouts and instead headed straight for my bread pudding. Upon first bite, a smile crossed my face, and I just knew. It was perfect. The texture was delicate and the flavors were subtly complex. I had seconds, and I had thirds.
This baby held it's own oh so beautifully, and let me tell you, I was proud.

Butternut Squash and Cheddar Bread Pudding
Adapted from Bon Appétit, November 2009

As per usual, I tweaked this recipe a bit. I used almond milk, instead of half and half. I also threw in an extra shallot, because after cutting four, I felt bad for the lowly one left over in the bag. Lastly, I used lactose-free cheese, which is my saving grace. I have posted the recipe as I found it in Bon Appétit, but I encourage you to experiment away.

2 pounds peeled seeded butternut squash, cut into 1-inch cubes (about 6 cups)
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 ½ teaspoons coarse kosher salt plus additional for sprinkling
7 large eggs
2 ¼ cups half and half
6 tablespoons dry white wine
1 ½ teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 day-old baguette (do not remove crust), torn/cut into 1-inch pieces (about 10 cups)
1 cup chopped shallots (about 4 large)
2 bunches Tuscan kale (about 1 pound), ribs removed, kale coarsely chopped
8 ounces extra-sharp cheddar cheese, coarsely grated

Preheat oven to 400°F. Toss squash with 1 tablespoon oil on rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle with coarse salt; bake until squash is tender, turning with spatula occasionally, 20 to 25 minutes.

Whisk eggs in large bowl. Add half and half, wine, mustard, and 1 1/2 teaspoons coarse salt; whisk to blend. Add baguette pieces; fold gently into egg mixture. Let soak 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Meanwhile, heat 2 tablespoons oil in large pot over medium-high heat. Add shallots and saute until soft, stirring frequently, about 5 minutes. Add kale; cover and cook 2 minutes. Uncover and stir until kale is wilted but still bright green, about 5 minutes (kale will be a bit crunchy).

Reduce oven temperature to 350°F.

Generously butter 13x9x2-inch baking dish. Using slotted spoon, transfer half of bread from egg mixture to prepared baking dish, arranging to cover most of dish. Spoon half of kale over bread. Spoon half of squash over bread and kale; sprinkle with half of cheese. Repeat with remaining bread, kale, squash, and cheese. Pour remaining egg mixture over bread pudding. Cover bread pudding with foil. Bake 20 minutes. Remove foil; bake uncovered until custard is set and bread feels springy to touch, about 20 minutes longer.

Preheat broiler; broil pudding until cheese browns slightly, about 2 minutes. Cool 5 minutes and serve.