Love Actually - the recipe edition

Sunday, January 31, 2016
I've always told my family that the best Christmas gifts are experiences. Some of my most treasured gifts have been stories, poetry, a handmade recipe book, and lyrics and music for a song. You just can't buy that kind of gift in a store.

In that vein, I was thrilled to receive a Christmas gift from my youngest daughter promising a Love Actually party. We'd watch the movie together, and she'd serve a meal complete with food mentioned in the script. Could anything be more fun than that?

There aren't a lot of food references in the movie - just two (unless you count the lobsters in the Christmas play). First are the chicken kebobs that Liam Neeson's character offered his stepson, when he was too busy practising the drums to eat. My daughter's kebobs were terrific, and hopefully I'll blog about them sometime soon.

The second was the banoffee pie that Keira Knightley offers her husband's best friend in exchange for the wedding video. After he turned it down, she said, "You would've broken my heart if you'd said yes." No spoilers here on whose heart is broken in the movie, but I can tell you my heart would have broken if I'd never tried this spectacular dessert.

For those of you who aren't familiar with banoffee pies (a group which would have included me, before Christmas), they're made of a graham wafer/cookie base, covered with layers of dulce de leche, sliced bananas, and whipped cream. I wondered if it might be overly rich. But my daughter and I found this recipe and collaborated on this wonderful pie, whose richness was cut a little by the squeeze of lemon on the bananas.
Two outermost rows of banana slices, covering the dulce de leche

Ready for the whipped cream!
Oh, and the party? It was amazing! All four of us enjoyed the meal, but Andrew declined the movie with (not so many) regrets. However, as the evening wore on, he joined in, and even admitted by the end that it was "sweet." Just like this delightful banoffee pie.

Banoffee Pie
(inspired by this recipe in the Guardian)

For the base
1 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs
1/2 cup pecans
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted

For the filling
7 Tbsp unsalted butter
7 Tbsp brown sugar
14 ounces dulce de leche (homemade or store bought)
½ tsp salt

For the topping
About 20 pecan halves
1 tsp icing sugar
4 ripe bananas
Squeeze of lemon juice
1 cup whipping cream
2 tsp Kahlua

Lightly butter a 9” tart pan with a removable bottom.

Combine the graham cracker crumbs and the melted butter. Chop the pecans coarsely, either with a knife or in a food processor, and add them to the graham cracker mixture. Press the mixture into the tart pan to line the base and sides. Chill.

Melt the butter and sugar over medium heat, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Add the dulce de leche and the salt and bring to a boil, stirring constantly until smooth. Pour over the pie crust and chill for an hour or more.

To prepare the pecans, preheat the oven to 350 F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Put pecans in a bowl and sprinkle with the icing sugar, then spread on the baking sheet. Bake for 10 - 12 minutes, shaking occasionally. Let them cool before using them. (The pie can be made up to this point up to 48 hours in advance.)

Thinly slice the bananas and toss with the lemon juice. Arrange on top of the cooled caramel in overlapping circles.

Whip the cream into soft peaks, and stir in the Kahlua. Spread on top of the bananas. Arrange the candied pecans on top and serve.

(Note: If you wanted the dessert a little sweeter, you could add a touch of sugar to the whipping cream.)


This has nothing to do with banoffee pies, but I couldn't let a Love Actually post go by without one more quote:

Jamie: (in English) It's my favourite time of day, driving you.
Aurelia: (in Portuguese) It's the saddest part of my day, leaving you.

Foodservice Friday: Mamakas

Friday, January 29, 2016

After writing about the wonderful Greek thyme honey I baked with last week, there was only one way to follow it up, and that was to write about the best Greek restaurant - by a wide margin - that I've ever visited.

True story: for years, I've generally avoided Greek restaurants. I always found the food a bit greasy, and assumed that's just what Greek cooking was like.

Apparently I've just been going to the wrong restaurants. Because after one visit to Mamakas, I'll never, ever think that way again.

I loved every single thing I ate here. The halloumi with clementines and pistachios was exquisite (possibly my favourite dish) - the flavours worked perfectly together. I could have made a meal of just this. But if I'd done that, I would have missed out on the most beautiful spanakopita I've ever seen, and the perfectly grilled lamb chops with hand cut potatoes and feta. And if you're lucky enough to eat there, don't even think about passing up the walnut cake with candied carrots and cinnamon ice cream. I probably could have made a meal of that, too.

As I like to do in my foodservice posts, I reached out to the owner, and wasn't disappointed. Not only did I hear back from Thanos Tripi immediately, he asked me to call him so he'd be sure to give me the answers I was looking for.

Seriously - he's the owner of a wildly popular new restaurant, and he wants to make sure I get all the information I need for my blog. How nice is that?

In our conversation, he told me he felt Greek food wasn't properly represented in Toronto, and he wanted to change that. He hoped to take traditional Greek recipes and update them without losing their integrity. When I asked about his favourite food memories, he mentioned olive oil French-fried potatoes, which are clearly represented in the restaurant's hand-cut potatoes (tiganites patates).

Tripi then passed the phone to his head chef, Chris Kalisperas, to answer any other questions I might have. Kalisperas reiterated the restaurant's goal of modernizing the traditional, and of using only the best ingredients with the most superior presentation. (Hence the gorgeous spanakopita.) His most important influences were a chef he worked for in Cyprus, and Thomas Keller.

The generosity of their time was truly matched by the generosity of the food - and by some of the friendliest, most helpful service I've ever had in a restaurant.

Greek myths are full of stories involving food. A golden apple was the prize in a contest to choose the most beautiful goddess. Hades tricked Persephone with a handful of pomegranate seeds. And Athena gifted the city of Athens with an olive tree. Our dinner at Mamakas was equally legendary, and equally worthy of the gods.

Mamakas Taverna
80 Ossington
Toronto ON

(All opinions are my own, and I received no compensation for this post.)

Greece is the word

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Last December, my friend Katrina announced she was hosting a contest for readers to win a basket of Greek delicacies from Trofos. A couple of weeks later, I was thrilled to hear I was one of the lucky winners. It wasn't long before I received a package with an international postmark; I opened it to see a cute snowman decoration: 
and took the lid off to see these amazing products:

You'll notice two of the jars were wrapped in tissue to prevent them from breaking. And as I unwrapped them, I found myself thinking, "I hope one of these is Greek honey."  I couldn't believe my luck when I found a jar of Greek wild thyme honey in one of those packages. While everything in the basket was terrific, I practically sprinted to the computer to find a recipe that uses wild thyme honey. I found a real winner in this lemon cake with a wild thyme honey glaze.  It's the glaze that really makes the cake shine, so definitely go the extra mile to find this gorgeous honey that's both strong and sweet. And once you have it, don't even think about using it on toast - I'm saving mine for the next time I bake this lovely dessert.

Thanks to Katrina for this terrific prize! Be sure to check out her blog for a modern take on Greek cooking, and her thoughts on the history and mythology of that beautiful country.

Lemon cake with Greek wild thyme honey
(adapted from My Little Expat Kitchen

1/2 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
zest of 2 lemons, grated
1 tsp lemon extract
4 large eggs
1 cup flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup sour cream

2/3 cup icing sugar
5 Tbsp whipping cream
1 Tbsp Greek wild thyme honey
chopped pistachios

Line a loaf pan with parchment paper, and preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine softened butter, sugar, lemon zest in stand mixer, and beat on low until just combined. Add lemon extract and beat on medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes.

Crack eggs into a small bowl and beat them lightly with a fork. Add the beaten eggs to the bowl in four additions, beating well after each addition to fully combine them.

Mix flour and baking powder in a separate bowl. Pour half the flour mixture into the butter and egg mixture, and stir until combined. Add the sour cream and stir to mix, then add the rest of the flour mixture. Stir only until combined.

Pour the cake batter into the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top with a spatula.

Bake 30 - 35 minutes. Test for doneness; if not fully cooked, leave it in another 5 minutes or until cooked.

Leave the cake in the baking pan for 10 minutes, then remove it and take off the parchment. Let cake cool completely before icing.

To make the glaze, combine the icing sugar, whipping cream and honey in a medium bowl. Mix well until you have a smooth glaze. Spread it over the cake and top with chopped pistachios.

Apple hand pies

Sunday, January 10, 2016

"To satisfy the sharp desire I had
Of tasting those fair apples, I resolv'd
Not to defer; hunger and thirst at once
Powerful persuaders, quicken'd at the scent
Of that alluring fruit, urge me so keen."

- from "Paradise Lost" by John Milton

Tempted by apples? You wouldn't be first.

Fruit desserts have always been the sweets I love most. And although she's generally grateful for what I serve, my youngest daughter reminds me from to time that it's chocolate she likes. That "fruit" doesn't really make a dessert.

She said the same thing a couple of weeks ago, but added a postscript I'd never heard before. "Except apples," she said. "I'll eat anything with apples in it."

I wasn't going to waste time wondering why I'd never heard this message before. I was on a hunt for an apple dessert recipe that would put chocolate out of everyone's minds. I found such a recipe in a cookbook Andrew gave me for Christmas, Montreal Cooks. This collection of recipes, by the top chefs of Montreal, currently bears about a dozen bookmarks showing the recipes I want to try next. But it was the Apple Pies by chef Josie Weitzenbauer of Leche Desserts that most captivated me. And they didn't disappoint. The pastry was, quite simply, the best I've ever made. And my family swooned over the filling so much, I know I won't defer before making them again.

Apple Hand Pies

I make some changes to the quantities in the recipe to avoid having more apple filling than I needed.
These amounts gave me 9 pies and a mini-galette.
Adapted from Montreal Cooks, by Jonathan Cheung and Tays Spencer

Pie crust
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cut in small dice
1/2 cup shortening, cut in small pieces
1 large egg (first amount)
1 cup water (first amount)
1 tsp cider vinegar
5 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp kosher salt
1/4 cup water (second amount)
2 eggs (second amount)
1 large egg yolk

Apple filling
6 cups diced peeled apples (I used Gala and Cortland)
3/8 cup white sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp ground cinnamon

Place the butter and shortening in a bowl and refrigerate until chilled, about 20 minutes.

In a small bowl, whisk together one egg, 1 cup of water and the vinegar, and refrigerate.

In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt until well mixed. Add the cold butter and shortening, using your hands to press it into the flour until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Make a well in the centre of the flour mixture and add the egg mixture. Using your hands, mix until the dough is just combined. Do not overwork the dough or it will become tough. Form it into a ball, wrap it in plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Place the apples in a medium pot, add the sugar, flour and cinnamon, and mix until the apples are coated. Cook over medium heat for 15 minutes, or until the flour is well-absorbed and begins to thicken. Transfer the filling to an airtight container and refrigerate until cool.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and line a baking sheet with parchment paper. In a small bowl, whisk together 2 eggs, the egg yolk, and the 1/4 cup of water to make an egg wash. Set aside.

Lightly dust a clean work surface with flour. Unwrap the chilled dough, set it on the work surface, and roll it into a circle 1/8 inch thick. Using a bowl with a 6-inch diameter, cut out rounds.

Use a pastry brush to brush half of each round with the egg wash. Place a scoop of apple compote on top of the egg wash, leaving 1/4 inch between the filling and the edge of the pastry. Fold the unfilled half of the pastry over the filling, matching up the edges and pressing them together. Using a fork, crimp the edges to seal them. Repeat until all the pies have been filled and sealed.

Use a sharp knife to pierce a steam hole in the tops, set the pies on the baking sheet, and bake for 30 minutes.

All is quiet on New Year's Day

Sunday, January 3, 2016

"All is quiet on New Year's Day
A world in white gets underway
I want to be with you."

- from "New Year's Day," by U2

A New Year's recipe should likely always be a salad, but what a salad this was! Bobby Flay's Bread Salad was the first recipe I flipped to in the September issue of Bon Appetit, and I came to a halt when I found it. I had to make it, but had no idea what quince paste was, or where I'd find it.

But when I recently asked about it in my local cheese shop, the owner told me they'd just bought a shipment. "I rarely find it," he said. "This is the first time I've carried it in a year, and I'll be sold out in a week."

I wasn't going to waste that good luck. And the salad was every bit as wonderful as I'd hoped - a perfect salad for a quiet New Year's holiday or a busy weeknight after we're all back to work.

Happy New Year!

"And now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still.

For once on the face of the earth
let's not speak in any language,
let's stop for one second,
and not move our arms so much."

- from "Keeping Quiet," by Pablo Neruda

Manchego Bread Salad
(from Bon Appetit)

1/2 loaf ciabatta bread, cut into 1" pieces
2 Tbsp olive oil (first amount)
kosher salt, freshly ground pepper
2 Tbsp drained prepared horseradish
2 Tbsp white wine vinegar
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
1 tsp honey
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
2 Tbsp olive oil (second amount)
2 ounces membrillo (quince paste), cut into 1/4" pieces
4 ounces Garrotxa or Manchego cheese, finely grated (I used Manchego, and loved it)
Baby arugula, for serving

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Toss bread pieces with 2 Tbsp olive oil on a rimmed baking sheet to coat; season with salt and pepper. Spread out in a single layer and bake, tossing halfway through, until bread is golden and crisp on the outside but still chewy inside, 8 - 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, whisk horseradish, vinegar, mustard and honey in a small bowl to combine. Whisking constantly, drizzle in vegetable oil, then remaining 2 Tbsp olive oil.

Toss toasted bread, membrillo, and cheese in a large bowl to combine. Add arugula, drizzle horseradish vinaigrette over, and toss to coat. Taste salad and season with salt and pepper as needed.