The Convert

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Have you ever noticed how recent converts are often the most enthusiastic?  For example, my friends and I like to talk about the kindle and other e-readers, and what it means for the future of the book.  The people who have just bought an e-reader are the ones whose eyes shine the brightest when they talk about it. 

That’s how I am with browned butter.  Having just discovered this technique a couple of weeks ago, I feel like my life has been forevermore enhanced.  It’s hard to describe the nutty undertone that browning butter brings to a recipe.  Remember how magical it was the first time you watched a 3D movie?  How you felt that if you extended your arm, you could touch everything that you were seeing?  That’s what browned butter will do to your recipes.

I’ve been scouring my books for recipes that use melted butter, knowing that this method will bring them to an unimagined level of perfection.  So what an amazing coincidence it was when I saw the February Bon Appetit cover promising the “Best-Ever Brownies”.  And when I flipped open the magazine to read the recipe, it featured browned butter.

These brownies, developed by the amazing Alice Medrich, were truly wonderful.  And although I didn’t eat the entire tray, as the subtitle promised I would, I was very grateful that my hungry friends and family kept me from doing so.

The original recipe calls for walnuts.  My kids don’t love most nuts, so I substituted an equal amount of chocolate chips. Next time (and there will be a next time) I’ll try toffee bits instead.  I think they’d set off the browned butter perfectly.

Cocoa Brownies with Browned Butter
(adapted from the February 2011 issue of Bon Appetit)
10 tablespoons (1 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter
1 1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup cocoa
2 tsp water
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
2 large eggs, chilled
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon unbleached all purpose flour
1 cup chocolate chips, toffee bits or walnut pieces

Preheat oven to 325°F. Line 8x8x2-inch metal baking pan with parchment paper, leaving a 2-inch overhang.

Melt butter in medium saucepan over medium heat. Continue cooking until butter stops foaming and browned bits form at bottom of pan, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Remove from heat; immediately add sugar, cocoa, water, vanilla, and salt. Stir to blend. Let cool five minutes (mixture will still be hot). Add eggs to hot mixture one at a time, beating vigorously to blend after each addition. When the mixture looks thick and shiny, add flour and stir until blended. Beat vigorously 60 strokes. Stir in your choice of chocolate chips, toffee bits or walnuts. Transfer batter to prepared pan.

Bake brownies until toothpick inserted into center comes out almost clean (with a few moist crumbs attached), about 25 minutes. Cool completely in pan, about four hours. When cool, use the parchment paper to lift brownies out of the pan. Cut into sixteen brownies.  Try to share them.

Thursday's Child: Imperial Garden, Forbidden City, Beijing

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The Forbidden City, in which the Imperial Garden is located, was built in the early 1400s, and was the home of the emperors from the Ming through the Qing dynasties.  Coincidentally, our guide in Beijing was also named Qing, and she told us the story of the Last Emperor. 

Emperor Pu Yi was not quite three years old when he inherited the title, due to the death of his uncle in 1908. He was forcibly removed from everyone he knew, except his wet nurse.  After spending four years as a child with complete power, he was forced to abdicate in 1912.  The rest of his life is a sad story of attempted assassinations, capture by Soviet troops, war crimes trials, and “educational reform”.

It’s almost impossible to imagine what it was like to live such a life.  But I can imagine his grief at leaving the beautiful Imperial Garden forever.  The emphasis is on harmony and balance, and it was a private retreat for the imperial family.  A pine tree, planted over 400 years ago in front of the Hall of Imperial Peace, is known as the Consort Pine and represents the harmony of the emperor and empress. 

The most depressing part of the history of the Forbidden City is the fact that a Starbucks store opened there in 2000.  This part of the story has a happy ending, though.  Protests in China, resulting in a petition with over half a million signatures, led to it being closed in 2007.  Regardless of how you feel about Starbucks, wouldn't you rather see our World Heritage Sites left untouched?
The girls were dying to climb these rocks.  We later found out that ladies
in the Imperial Court used to climb them to see the world outside.
The Consort Pine

100 Followers and a Giveaway

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

For those of you who've been watching my sidebar, you’ll notice that I’ve just passed the one hundred follower threshold.  Thanks to every one of my readers – whether or not you officially follow me, I love that you visit and read my musings.  When I wrote my first post last July, I had no idea how much I’d enjoy it and how many other wonderful blogs I’d find out there.  To those of you whose blogs I enjoy reading – thank you!

I’d like to pass that thanks along by hosting a giveaway.  Some of my readers are children’s authors, and some love to bake, so I've decided on a prize package to make everyone happy.  One lucky reader will win a copy of New Flavors For Desserts (a Williams-Sonoma book) and a signed copy of one of my books. (Harley's Gift is pictured here because the colours went best with the cookbook.  But you can choose whichever one you want!)

To enter, all you have to do is to be a follower and let me know in the comments section below that you’re interested in winning.  For blogging friends, you can earn an extra entry by mentioning this contest somewhere in your blog and letting me know below that you did so.

The contest will run until March 7 at midnight (EST) and I’ll announce a winner (chosen by random number generator) on March 8.  Good luck!

Valentine's Day

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I’ve passed into that phase of life where I’m chauffeur first and everything else second.  When my husband and I were making Valentine dinner plans, we realized that the girls’ schedules were pretty busy on Monday night.  In other words, we’d either enjoy a romantic 4 pm seating or we’d be falling asleep over our entrees.  Neither seemed ideal, so we decided on a lovely Sunday dinner out and a family dinner on the 14th.

Here’s what makes a perfect Valentine’s Day at the Pollock house:

-       exchanging poems (not mushy, more of the Roses are Red variety),
-       dinner with my family after driving duties were complete,
-       spaghetti and meatballs for four (because the most romantic meal is one that everybody will actually eat), and
-       a perfect dessert to finish.

Most people think ‘chocolate’ for their valentine, but I went with peanut butter. And a happier set of loved ones you’ve never seen.  These bars are wonderful, but they were even better on the second day after the flavours had a chance to mellow.  Yes, ye of little faith, they did make it to the second day.

Peanut Butter and Jelly Bars
(from Ina Garten, adapted by Eats Well With Others

2 sticks (one cup) unsalted butter
1 ½ cups sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temperature
18 oz (about 500 g) creamy peanut butter
1 ½ cups all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups whole wheat flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 ½ tsp kosher salt
18 oz (about 1 ½ cups) raspberry jam
2/3 cup salted peanuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 9 x 13” cake pan or line it with parchment paper. 

With an electric mixer, cream the butter and sugar together until light yellow, about two minutes.  With the mixer on low, add vanilla, eggs, and peanut butter and mix until combined.

In a small bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder and salt.  With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour to the peanut butter mixture and mix until combined. 

Spread 3/4 of the dough into the prepared cake pan, making sure it covers the entire surface evenly.  Spread the jam evenly over the dough.  Drop small globs of the remaining dough evenly over the jam.  Sprinkle with the peanuts.  Bake for about 45 minutes, until golden brown.  Let cool and cut into squares.

Thursday's Child: Cawdor Castle gardens

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cawdor Castle gardens: photo credit of Casa Coniglio

I admit it.  I’m a bit of a romantic when it comes to travel.  As much as I love to see places that are beautiful or interesting, I love it even more when I can visit a place with a great back-story.

So the year we went to Scotland, it was almost preordained that we’d visit Cawdor Castle.  Cawdor Castle was the fictional home of Macbeth.  I always loved that play – the drama, the guilt, and the eventual victory of good over evil.  (I like it so much, there’s actually a small Macbeth reference in my last book, The Witch of Bloor Street!)

Truth and history sometimes collide.  Reading the guidebooks before we left, I knew that it was impossible that Macbeth had ever actually lived there, but in my imagination anything is possible.  And Shakespeare had written his play based on the belief that Macbeth was the Thane of Cawdor.

So it was with a mix of reality and fantasy that we stopped at the castle that warm August day.

Now the only problem with romantic ideals is that it’s sometimes difficult to impose them on the rest of your family.  (Remember what happened when we visited the Temple of Artemis?)  The girls were ten and seven when we travelled to Scotland and, sadly, wouldn’t have cared if Lady Macbeth herself had greeted us at the drawbridge.  A less interested family would have been difficult to find.  And, to be fair, how would most seven-year-olds respond to, “This castle wasn’t the home of a play you’ve never seen”?

That’s why I was so thankful for the gardens at Cawdor.  It seemed almost impossible that a greying castle in northern Scotland could be backed by three such lovely gardens.  The oldest, the Walled Garden, dates back to 1620 and includes orchards, vegetable gardens, and a holly maze.  The Wild Garden is a collection of bushes and woodland, and includes five nature trails.  And the Flower Garden, which was envisioned in 1710 by the real thane of Cawdor, bursts with colour.
Photo credit Casa Coniglio
Photo credit Cawdor Castle

Shakespeare wrote of the castle: “the air/ Nimbly and sweetly recommends itself/ Unto our gentle senses”.  The history may be wrong, but the inspiration is completely right.

Playing in the garden, happy at last.

Browning Butter

Sunday, February 13, 2011
If you’re on a diet, stop reading right now.

I go through more butter, brown sugar and eggs than most people.  And even by my standards, this recipe seemed pretty rich.  A cup and a quarter of butter?  Two cups of brown sugar and three eggs?  It had better be delicious.  And I’d better not ruin it.

As usual, I started reading the directions after I’d started into the recipe.  And one of those directions called for me to brown butter.

I started melting it but, never having browned butter in my life, I thought it would be useful to know what the finished product should look like and why I was doing it.  Take a look here for a description and here for really useful photos.  I considered taking a photo of my own butter to post, but between googling “how to brown butter” and actually browning my own, I had my hands full. 

Let me say that the finished result was spectacular!  I always doubted the validity of browned butter as a cooking technique.  I assumed it was a fancy term for putting the butter on to melt and then wandering away to, oh I don’t know, google baking terminology.  But the flavour was beautiful and nutty, and definitely brought a new dimension to this recipe.  I almost regretted that I had substituted chocolate chips for the nuts, because I thought the flavour would shine through a little more without the distraction of chocolate.

Never fear.  If you’ve made it this far, with the abundance of butter (browned), brown sugar and eggs, you will adore these blondies.  With or without the distraction of chocolate.
I had lunch out a week ago with five dear friends to celebrate Jan and Carla’s birthdays.  Kim had organized it, but she couldn’t attend at the last moment because she fell on the ice and broke her wrist in two places.  As a consolation prize, I took her a plate of these blondies.  It’s not as good as lunch with your girlfriends, but hopefully it takes a little of the sting out.

Brown Butter Toffee Blondies
(adapted from Martha Stewart)

1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 cups packed dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup chocolate chips
1 cup toffee bits

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking pan, or line the bottom with parchment paper. 

In a saucepan over medium heat, cook the butter until it turns golden brown; remove from heat, and let cool. Whisk together flour, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine browned butter and both sugars; beat until combined. Add eggs and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add vanilla, and beat to combine. Add flour mixture, chocolate chips, and toffee bits. Mix until thoroughly combined, and pour into prepared pan.

Bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes (do not overbake). Transfer to a wire rack to cool before turning out of pan onto a cutting board. Peel off parchment paper; cut blondies into 3-inch squares. Blondies can be stored in an airtight container at room temperature up to 3 days.

As if they’d last that long.

Thursday's Child: Majorelle Garden

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Another Thursday in February means it’s our chance to escape to another beautiful garden.  Today we travel to Marrakech, a city that I loved but which was the most fast-paced destination I’ve visited.  What better location could there be for an oasis of quiet?

That oasis is Majorelle Garden.  Named for its original owner, Jacques Majorelle, it was later purchased and donated to the city by Yves St. Laurent.  It’s also the namesake for majorelle blue, the deep cobalt shade that predominated throughout the garden.

The minute we stepped in, we felt miles away from honking vehicles and energetic salespeople.  The garden is criss-crossed with paths that conduct you from one beautiful sight to another.  From a small tiled pool to an enormous pond filled with lily pads.  From a bed of cacti to blossoming bougainvilleas.  The garden is also home to a number of bird species that live only in North Africa.

Join me as I guide you through the ultimate haven in blue – Majorelle Garden.

Blog indexes, and a blogging award

Tuesday, February 8, 2011
When I started this blog last July, it was just for fun.  I love writing, baking and travelling, so the idea of writing about my baking and travelling seemed perfect.

But the longer I keep this blog, the more I’ve realized I need a way to organize it.  If I’ve blogged about a recipe, it’s easier for me to find it online than to pull a cookbook out.  And when people ask me for the recipe, I can send them a link.

Of course the more I post, the more challenging it’s been to find a specific recipe.  So the index will be helpful to me, and hopefully to my readers, too.  In addition to indexing my recipes by category (cookies, cakes, pie, etc), I’ve included a grouping called “Recipes that use buttermilk”.  Whenever I buy buttermilk, I end up scrambling to find another recipe that will use the rest.  Check out my recipe index by clicking on the tab at the top of my blog.

I’ve also added a travel index, so if you’re curious about eating at the Shake Shack in New York or staying in the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, you can find it via the travel index tab at the top.

I’m also thrilled to be the recipient of the Stylish Blogger award.  A big thank you to two wonderful bloggers who nominated me: Ali Cross, and Ann of Apples and Twinkies.  I’m supposed to share a few things about myself when I accept this award.  But rather than making a long post even longer, here are the facts with the links in case you want to read more!

  1. My favourite band is The National.
  2. My daughter and her friends still talk about the cookies I baked for their softball tournament.
  3. I did not eat the edible insects we saw in Beijing.
  4. I read Proust in France – sort of.
  5. I’m a Scorpio.
  6. My friends run a fantastic cancer fundraiser called “Read For The Cure”.
  7. I really had a Grandma Baker
And I’d like to pass on the award to some blogs that I love:

Anecdotes and Apple Cores – Every time I read Monet’s blog, I feel like I’m getting to know a really wonderful person just a little better.

Cinnamon Spice – Reeni amazes me with the number of original recipes she publishes.  I loved her  orange cream cheese frosting, and hope to post more of her fabulous recipes!

Comfortably Domestic – I enjoy reading Kirsten’s stories about baking and family life so much, I can forgive her for being a Red Wings’ fan.

Moveable Feasts – Anyone who names her blog after an Ernest Hemingway book must have a lot to say, and Barbara doesn’t disappoint!

Munchkin Munchies – Sue posts the cutest crafts, and baking that she shares with her adorable grandchildren.

One Perfect Bite – Mary posts a great array of sweet and savory recipes, and many of them are her own beautiful creations.

Zomppa – Zomppa is a collaborative blog between ten women who write about travel and food, and post fabulous photos.

Snow Day

Sunday, February 6, 2011

When I was growing up, I lived on a farm and relied on the school bus to take me to school.  Most of my friends did too, with only a small handful of kids being close enough to walk.  So when there was a big snowfall, school was often cancelled.

Until this winter, my kids had never experienced a snow day.  We live a block from the elementary school, and even my high schooler commutes easily by city bus.  They used to listen enviously while I regaled them with the story of missing school for a week one March when we were completely without electricity.  (Having lived through it, I assure them it wasn’t all that great.  Fun at first, by the end it was pretty boring.  And really cold.)

This week, thanks to overexcited media reports, the school board elected to cancel all classes for the day.  And of course the much-hyped storm turned out to be not much at all.  But having heard those overexcited media reports all of the previous day, I had bought baking supplies in case we couldn’t get out.

Both girls ended up seeing their friends, but there was time for baking, too.  We made a batch of Chocolate Chip Orange muffins for our super-nice neighbours, the Goodwins, who shoveled our drive for us.  No we’re not shut-ins and we haven’t broken our arms.  They’re just super-nice.

We made these sticky buns for ourselves.  This is a dangerously easy recipe for the most amazing cinnamon buns you’ll ever eat.  With a base of frozen puff pastry, you can whip them up in about ten minutes. I only make a half-batch of these at a time, because to have twelve sticky buns in my house would be to invite trouble.  It’s a great reason to keep puff pastry in the freezer, because you never know when the next snow day will come.
Sticky buns, rolled up and ready to be baked
Easy Sticky Buns

This recipe makes a full batch.  I generally cut it in half to make six buns.

12 Tbsp (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter at room temperature
1/3 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup pecans, chopped in large pieces
1 package (2 sheets) frozen puff pastry, defrosted

For the filling:
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2/3 cup brown sugar, packed
3 tsp ground cinnamon
1 cup raisins

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Place a 12-cup standard muffin tin on a cookie sheet lined with parchment paper.

In an electric mixer, beat the 12 Tbsp butter and 1/3 cup brown sugar.  Divide evenly between the 12 muffin cups.  Distribute the pecan pieces evenly on top.

Lightly flour a wooden board.  Unfold one sheet of puff pastry and brush it with 1 Tbsp melted butter.  Leaving a 1/2 inch border, sprinkle each sheet with 1/3 cup of the brown sugar, 1 1/2 tsp of the cinnamon and 1/2 cup of the raisins.  Starting with the end nearest you, roll the pastry up snugly like a jelly roll around the filling.  Slice the roll in six equal pieces.  Place each piece, spiral side up, in 6 of the muffin cups.  Repeat with the second sheet of puff pastry to make 12 sticky buns.

Bake for 22 – 25 minutes, until the sticky buns are golden on top and firm to the touch.  Allow to cool for five minutes ONLY, then invert the buns onto the parchment paper, easing the filling and pecans out onto the buns with a spoon.  Cool completely.

Thursday's Child: Jardin de la Petite Rochelle

Thursday, February 3, 2011

I’ve never understood how one month can simultaneously be the shortest and the longest month of the year, but February manages to do it.  January carries the novelty of the beginning of winter, and March bears the promise of spring.  But February is one dreary winter day after the next.

So this February, I’ll be travelling to four different gardens around the world.  Let me carry you away to warmer climes, to flowers, trees and meandering paths.  For a few brief moments, once a week, let’s take a magic carpet ride to a warmer season in an enchanting garden.

Today I’ll take you to Jardin de la Petite Rochelle in the district of Orne, France.  If there ever was a real-life Secret Garden, this would be it.  It’s actually a private garden that’s open to the public a handful of weekends in the spring, and for a month in the summer.  We were fortunate enough to be staying in Orne while it was open last August, and our innkeeper told us not to miss it.

Jardin de la Petite Rochelle is actually a collection of eight small gardens, connected by a maze of paths.  Around every bend was another surprise – a tranquil pond with tiny stone frog fountains.  Walkways lined with roses, hydrangeas and fairies’ fishing rods.  (Isn’t that a perfect name for a flower?)  A round pool backed by cultivated hedges and two stone benches.

If you could take your own magic carpet ride this February, where would you go?