Half birthdays

Sunday, February 19, 2017
When the girls were young, we celebrated half-birthdays. Half birthdays happened on the six-month anniversary of the actual birthday, and we celebrated them with half a cake. Literally, since we cut a one-tier cake in two and placed the halves on top of each other. The other rule of half-birthdays is that you do something nice for someone else (instead of receiving something as you would on your regular birthday).

We haven't celebrated half-birthdays in years, but did so recently when both girls were at home and my youngest daughter reminded me it was hers. I'm always happy to recreate childhood memories, and it was fun baking our traditional half-birthday white cake with caramel frosting.

What are your favourite family food traditions?

Half-birthday White Cake with Caramel Icing
(Note: if you want to make the whole cake, it was inspired by this recipe. The icing recipe is adapted from a recipe in Company's Coming Cakes, a cookbook I received at one of my wedding showers.)

For the cake:
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
1/4 cup vegetable shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
1 egg white
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
pinch salt
1/4 cup milk, room temperature
1/4 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter one 9" round cake pan on sides and line with parchment paper on the bottom.

Using a stand mixer, cream together butter and shortening until light and fluffy. Slowly add sugar, continuing to beat. Add eggs and egg white one at a time, fully incorporating each before adding the next. Continue to beat, scraping down the sides as necessary, for 2 - 3 minutes until very fluffy.

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a small bowl. Combine milk, buttermilk and vanilla in a measuring cup. Add to butter mixture alternately, starting and ending with dry ingredients, stirring until smooth.

Pour cake batter into pan and bake 36 - 40 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out clean. Let cool slightly in cake pan for 5 minutes, then remove and cool completely before frosting.

For the frosting:

1 cup brown sugar, packed
6 Tbsp cream or milk
1/2 cup butter
3 cups icing sugar
8 - 12 pecans, toasted

Heat brown sugar, cream, and butter in medium saucepan until it boils. Boil for 2 minutes, then remove from heat and cool completely.

Add icing sugar and beat until smooth. (You may need to add more cream to make it spreading consistency.)

Frost the cake and top with pecans.


Sunday, February 5, 2017

If you read my blog carefully, you'll have seen that a few weeks ago I did something I hadn't done before: double-post a recipe.

For some reason, I had no memory of posting Gingery Sweet Potato and Apple Saute in March 2015, and didn't even realize the duplication until a week after posting it again in January. At least, one might argue, they were nearly two years apart.

I'll admit life is busy now - in addition to my full-time (plus overtime) contract position, I'm juggling a few freelance projects. And maybe that's making me absent-minded. Because when I went to post a recipe today, I hovered over the cauliflower-kale gratin photos on my computer before realizing I'd posted that one six weeks ago.

After that near-miss, I triple-checked that I hadn't already posted my recipe for Garam Masala cookies. And I'm happy to say this is a brand-new recipe for my blog! I've made so many cookies in my life that it's rare to come across one that's completely different, but this one truly is. I wouldn't have imagined how great an impact garam masala would have on a batch of cookies. And I promise you this - if you make these cookies, you'll never forget them.

Garam Masala Kitchen Sink Cookies

Adapted from Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook by Nancy Vienneau

1/2 cup butter, softened
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup sugar
1 egg
1 tsp fresh orange zest
1/4 tsp orange extract
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoons garam masala
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped pecans
1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup dried cherries 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a stand mixer, beat butter and sugars until creamy. Add egg, orange zest, and orange extract and beat well. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, salt, and garam masala. Stir the flour mixture into the creamed sugar mixture a little at a time until combined. Fold in oats, toasted pecans, chocolate chips and dried cherries, and stir until just mixed.

Drop rounded tablespoons full onto a cookie sheet covered with parchment paper and bake for 12 minutes, or until golden brown.



Sunday, January 22, 2017

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

- Carl Sandburg, "Fog"

It was a foggy drive today as I went to visit my youngest at university. She and I cooked together, making food for a friend whose brother died this week.

"I don't know what to say when somebody dies, Mom."
"Neither do I, honey."

We take food, and say how sorry we are, and hope they know how much we care.

Pasta and Chicken with Mascarpone

Inspired by Italian Food Forever 

1 cup mascarpone cheese at room temperature
zest and juice of 1/2 lemon
a few grinds of black pepper
2 skinless, boneless chicken breasts cut into 1/2” dice
1 1/2 Tbsp olive oil
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
3 cups baby spinach
2 cups dry penne
salt (for pasta water)
1/3 cup chopped sun-dried tomatoes
1/4 cup toasted sliced almonds

Combine the mascarpone, zest, lemon juice and pepper in a bowl, and whisk to combine. Bring a pasta pot of salted water to boil.

While waiting for the water, heat the oil in a skillet, and cook the chicken until it is cooked through and just beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and spinach, and cook another minute or two, until spinach is wilted. Season with salt and pepper.

Cook the pasta until al denteDrain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta water.

Return the pasta to the pot, and set over medium heat. Stir in the mascarpone and lemon mixture, the chicken mixture,  and sun-dried tomatoes. Loosen the sauce with 1/4 cup of the water and toss the ingredients together until everything is combined, adding a little additional pasta water if needed.

Serve immediately, topped with toasted sliced almonds.

A new year

Sunday, January 8, 2017
Sintra, Portugal - May 2016
We're a week into the New Year, but I want to write about one of my favourite year-end traditions. Andrew, the girls and I always go out to dinner between Christmas and New Year's, and spend the meal taking turns talking about our favourite memories of the past year.

2016 was a year many people were glad to see the end of, so we really appreciated remembering the wonderful experiences we had, either individually or as a family. While some of them were big (a family trip to Portugal, and a 25th wedding anniversary trip to Argentina), most of the things we remembered were smaller: a picnic lunch by Lake Ontario, a Thanksgiving weekend hike with my mom, going to church together on Christmas day. We had so much to be grateful for, we were still sharing memories when it was time to go.

Evora, Portugal - May 2016

Iguazu Falls, Argentina - September 2016
As always, it was a great way to end a year. And a good way to start this year is to prepare food that's both delicious and healthy. Susie Middleton is my cookbook hero - her recipes make vegetables the star, and I can always count on them being full of flavour. If this is a taste of what 2017 will be like, it's going to be an awesome year.

Gingery Sweet Potato and Apple Saute
(adapted slightly from Fast, Fresh and Green by Susie Middleton)

1 tsp cider vinegar
2 tsp chicken broth
1 Tbsp unsalted butter (first amount)
1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (first amount)
2 3/4 cups sweet potatoes, cut into 1/2" dice (about 1 1/2 medium sweet potatoes)
1 small yellow onion cut into 1/2" dice
1 tsp kosher salt
1 Tbsp olive oil (second amount)
1 Golden Delicious apple cut into 1/2" dice
2 tsp finely chopped fresh ginger
1/2 Tbsp butter
2 Tbsp roughly chopped toasted sliced almonds

Combine the cider vinegar and broth in a small bowl and set aside.

In a 10" saute pan or skillet, melt 1 Tbsp butter with 1 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Add sweet potatoes, onion, and salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onion is softened and lightly browned, and the sweet potatoes have turned bright orange and are starting to brown, 10 to 12 minutes.

Add 1 Tbsp olive oil and the diced apple. Turn the heat down to medium low, and stir frequently until sweet potatoes are tender, and the apple and onion are browned, 8 to 12 minutes.

Add ginger and stir for about 30 seconds to incorporate. Remove the pan from the heat, clear a small spot in the pan, and add the vinegar-broth mixture and remaining 1/2 Tbsp butter. Stir well immediately to incorporate the butter. Transfer to plates and garnish with toasted almonds.

The cookie house

Monday, December 26, 2016
Three cousins
Yesterday was a wonderful Christmas day. After gathering around the tree for gifts in the morning, we attended church with mixed feelings, as we bade farewell to our senior minister and organist, both of whom are retiring after 23 years with the congregation. The girls have grown up in the Sunday School and youth choir, and it's been home to our family since we joined 19 years ago. We're sad to see Mark and John leave, but we look forward to welcoming our new senior minister, Maya, in January.

In the afternoon, we visited my sister Gwen and her family, who hosted Christmas dinner this year. The meal was fantastic, but the highlight was the cookie house that my mom has made every year since I was a kid.  It's a part of the holidays my kids can't imagine being without, and they're still happy to pose with the cookie house on Christmas day. 

Today's recipe can't compete with a cookie house! But this kale and cauliflower gratin is a terrific side dish for holiday meals. Served with a salad, it would make a complete vegetarian meal. 

Wishing all my readers a happy Christmas season, and much joy in 2017.

Cauliflower Kale Gratin
(slightly adapted from Goodness, by Peter Neal and Chris Neal)

1 large head of cauliflower, cut into 1 1/2” to 2” florets
1 1/2 cups kale, stems removed and leaves sliced into 1/2 inch ribbons
2 Tbsp butter (first amount)
2 Tbsp flour
1 cup skim (fat-free) milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
2 cups coarsely shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1/2 cup finely chopped green onions, green part only
1/2 tsp kosher salt
a few grinds of black pepper
2 Tbsp unsalted butter (second amount)
20 square (2-inch) saltine crackers

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Butter a 2-quart shallow baking dish.

In a large saucepan of boiling salted water, cook cauliflower 5 minutes. Add kale, stir well, and cook another 2 minutes. Using a colander, drain cauliflower and kale and transfer to the prepared baking dish.

Meanwhile, in a heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-low heat, melt 2 Tbsp butter. Whisk in flour to create a roux, then add milk in a slow stream, constantly whisking to prevent lumps from forming. Bring just to a boil, then reduce heat and stir until thickened.

Remove milk mixture from heat and add cheese, green onions, salt and paper, whisking until cheese is melted. Pour cheese sauce over cooked vegetables and stir gently to combine. Set aside.

Coarsely crumble crackers into a bowl. In a small saucepan, melt 2 Tbsp butter. Pour over crumbs and toss to coat.

Sprinkle crumb topping evenly over vegetables. Bake until topping is golden brown, about 10 minutes.
Cousins at the Cookie House, December 2001

Decorating the Cookie House with Gwen when we were kids

Brown butter chocolate chip cookies

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Truth: there is no such thing as too many chocolate chip cookies.

And even though I've written about both my classic Chocolate Chip Cookies and my Nutella Chocolate Chip Cookies, it's time to add the third member of that triumvirate. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce the fabulous Brown Butter Chocolate Chip cookies.

Brown butter makes everything better - amirite? And normally I don't put nuts in chocolate chip
cookies, but here the pecans set off the brown butter perfectly.

Chocolate chip cookies are one of the first things I remember baking as a little girl helping my mom in the kitchen. They were one of the first recipes I learned to bake as a young woman living on my own. They were always one of my favourite recipes to bake with my daughters when they were young. And even though I'm not really a chocoholic, I'll always have a special place in my heart for chocolate chip cookies. No matter which recipe I use.

Brown Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted slightly from Joy the Baker)

2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 cup unsalted butter (first amount)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature (second amount)
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 tsp molasses
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1/2 cup coarsely chopped pecans
1 cup chocolate chips

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, salt and baking soda. Set aside.

Brown 1/2 cup butter in a pot over medium heat. Once it has browned, pour it into a small bowl and let cool for 20 minutes.

In the meantime, cream remaining 1/2 cup of butter with brown sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer. Beat on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 to 5 minutes. Add vanilla extract and molasses, and beat until incorporated.

Once the brown butter has cooled slightly, pour it (brown bits and all) into the creamed butter and sugar mixture. Add the sugar and beat for 2 minutes, until well-incorporated. Add the egg and egg yolk, and beat for 1 minute more.

Stop the mixer and scrape the bottom of the bowl to ensure that everything is evenly mixed. Remove from mixer. Add the flour mixture and stir until the flour is just incorporated. Stir in pecans and chocolate chips.

Cover with plastic wrap and let rest in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Scoop dough by the two tablespoonful onto prepared sheets, leaving 2" of space between cookies.

Bake for 12 - 14 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from the oven, let rest on the baking sheet for 5 minutes, then remove and let cool.

Upside-Down Pear Gingerbread

Sunday, December 4, 2016

I know without even looking at the calendar that it's the first weekend of December:

- With a week off between my last work contract and the next one, I set a goal to both start and finish my Christmas shopping last week. I came very close, and am now basking in the knowledge that I don't need to visit another mall until 2017.
- We had an early celebration of Andrew's birthday yesterday, when both the girls were home. I baked his favourite cake and we enjoyed some wonderful family time together.
- Andrew put up the Christmas lights this morning, and now our house looks like it's ready for Santa!

The cake I baked on Saturday was the simple but amazing Gingerbread recipe I've shared on this blog before. But this Upside-Down Pear Gingerbread is terrific too, and a festive choice to celebrate a birthday, the holiday season, or being almost done your Christmas shopping.

Upside-Down Pear Ginger Cake
(from Epicurious.com)

For topping

2 1/2 firm pears (preferably Bosc)
1/4 cup unsalted butter
3/4 cup packed brown sugar

For cake

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
1/2 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup molasses (preferably mild)
1 cup boiling water
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1 large egg, lightly beaten

Peel and core pears and cut each into 8 wedges. Melt butter in 10" or 12" heavy skillet until foam subsides. Reduce heat to low, then sprinkle brown sugar over bottom of skillet and cook, undisturbed,  for 3 minutes (not all sugar will be melted). Arrange pears decoratively over sugar and cook, undisturbed, for 2 minutes. Remove from heat.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. If the skillet handle isn't ovenproof, wrap it with a double layer of foil.

Whisk together flour, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together molasses and boiling water in a small bowl. Beat together butter, brown sugar and egg in a large bowl with an electric mixer until creamy, about 2 minutes. Then alternately mix in flour mixture and molasses in 3 batches, stirring after each addition, until smooth.

Pour batter over topping in skillet, spreading evenly and being careful not to disturb pears. Bake in middle oven until a tester comes out clean, 40 to 50 minutes.

Remove from oven and cool cake in skillet for 5 minutes. Run a thin knife around edge of skillet, then invert a large plate with a lip over top. Using pot holders to hold the skillet and plate tightly together, invert cake onto plate, replacing any pears that stick. Serve warm or at room temperature, with whipping cream or vanilla ice cream.