I’m glad I don’t profess to blog “regularly” on my Twitter bio. Yes… it’s been a while.
Nearing the end of my first pregnancy, it hasn’t always been easy to bake (or write) as frequently as I want. However, that’s not the reason I bought mince pies the other day instead of baking them myself.
My husband, being from the other side of the pond, has on several occasions told me how much he loves mince pies. I’d love nothing more than to bake them for him, but when the opportunity came up to buy them, I felt compelled to for two reasons:
- Support a new, local business
- Learn from a master
The Great British Bake, based out of Cambridge, Ontario, offers cupcakes, sweet and savoury pies, scones, loaves, quiches and biscuits, plus a host of holiday favourites such as mince pies, shortbread and Christmas morning muffins. In fact, you can still order by today (December 8, 2012) to guarantee special pricing on those holiday items.
When I got my box of pies, I was delighted to see a golden crust, with a rich looking mince filling topped with a sparkling pastry star. The pies were generous in size for just $2 and it took all my willpower to save mine for after lunch.
To be honest, I’m not sure I’ve ever had a mince pie, and if I did, it wasn’t’ memorable, but this certainly was. The pastry had lightness to it that I did not expect, as well as hint of sweetness that complemented the dense filling. What I liked about the mince is that it had great texture and flavours, but it wasn’t overly sweet, so I felt satisfied after the pie, and wasn’t moaning about “eating too much” (extra common reaction when you’re expecting).
The verdict from the husband and his taste testing colleagues (some of them British), was that these were very authentic, traditional and delicious mince pies.
Now understanding the basics of a good English mince pie, it’s my turn to try it… but that certainly doesn’t mean I won’t take advantage of the Great British Bake again.
What holiday favourites are you trying for the first time this year?
I admit that when it comes to baking, I do tend to lean towards old favourites and simple recipes. As much as I enjoy the practice of baking, spending hours in the kitchen isn’t always feasible, and as an expectant mum, being on my feet for long periods of time is darn near impossible.
However, when I have a strong urge to tackle a new recipe, sometimes hours seem like minutes. That’s what happened last Sunday when I tried the Culinary Institute of America’s (@CIACulinary) chocolate éclair recipe in their Baking at Home with the CIA cookbook. It was a belated birthday gift from my sister, who has the privilege of visiting the CIA whenever she pleases because she lives in New York.
So why did I choose éclairs? In all honesty, when I was flipping through the book it just happened to be one of the first recipes I came across, and I was probably hungry at the time (eating for two means I am always kind of hungry), and finally, and perhaps most importantly, it’s one of @theActualCraig’s favourites.
I experienced a lot of baking firsts with this recipe. For starters, I made diplomat cream, which is a combination of pastry cream and whipping cream. Most of my taste testers, @theActualCraig included, agreed it was a really tasty filling. Diplomat cream in some respects is a lot of work, because pastry cream requires careful timing and continuous stirring. This recipe also required an ice bath, so there was a lot of balancing acts in the kitchen moving hot pans around, shrieking as my prepared bowl in the ice bath suddenly filled with water as I was about to transfer the cream. Don’t worry, I managed to figure it all out.
I also learned how to strategically and practically fill the pastry from both ends using a chopstick to clear a canal and one of those handy disposable plastic piping bags I picked up from a local baking supply store. No more washing greasy piping bags EVER again.
Okay, so they weren’t perfect éclairs. The pastry didn’t rise as much as I expected. This meant that diplomat cream distribution wasn’t perfect either, sometimes being more concentrated in the ends with little to none in the middle, or oozing out of the sides when I used too much pressure to fill the éclair. I also mistakenly picked up unsweetened chocolate instead of bittersweet chocolate, so I had to do some last minute Googling to convert unsweetened to bittersweet, which turns out is just ½ oz of unsweetened chocolate plus a tablespoon of sugar for every 1 oz of bittersweet chocolate. It worked and some of my co-workers exclaimed how good the chocolate was!
The finished product did look somewhat professional, and @theActualCraig loved them. The fallen pastry meant a chewier texture, but I liked it, and the reduced diplomat cream meant I could confidently tell my co-workers (who got the leftovers) that my éclairs were in fact much better for their waistline than typical bakery/store-bought éclairs.
I’d like to say I’ll try them again but they do take a lot of time. I need to first ask the CIA for some advice around why the éclair pastry didn’t puff as much as I expected (did I over-stir, was it because I didn’t use a wooden spoon but instead a plastic spatula, should I have not rotated the pans…). It’s a lengthy baking feat, taking close to 4 hours when all is said and done, and you need to time your diplomat cream to when you plan on filling your éclairs, because you can’t let the cream sit idly by.
For now, I’ll just bask in the glory of successfully baking my first batch of éclairs.
Baking at Home with the CIA which includes the complete éclair recipe is available on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/Baking-Home-Culinary-Institute-America/dp/0471450952 and I’m sure wherever else fine recipe books are sold.
I remember one of the first times I came across mascarpone cheese. My mum whipped up a dessert that looked like it came out of a five-star restaurant. She layered sheets of buttered phyllo in muffin cups to create individual artful baskets of pastry. After baking and cooling, she lined the bottom of the flakey cups with a mixture of mascarpone cheese and white chocolate, gently dropped in freshly sliced strawberries and drizzled with melted chocolate. The result is a symphony of flavour and texture, and a plating experience for your guests they won’t soon forget.
Last weekend I had been searching for a pizza recipe when I came across a strawberry pizza. With a puff pastry base and a layer of mascarpone cheese, I couldn’t resist to pick up a tub of the soft cheese and make a combination of two of my favourite things: dessert and pizza. It was also an excuse to get a tub of mascarpone cheese in my fridge, which means only one thing… cheeky spoonfuls.
Mascarpone cheese is cream cheese taken to a new level. It is rich and creamy, with a visible silkiness that regular cream cheese doesn’t have. It also has a natural sweetness that makes it a treat on its own (cheeky spoonfuls) but when combined with other sweet flavours, becomes an even richer sweet and irresistible ingredient for desserts, most commonly, tiramisu. It is an Italian cheese made from cream and citric acid, and is also used as a thickener in savoury dishes and sauces.
This cheese isn’t cheap. A 500g tub will cost $7.99 on a good day. When I was in Vincenzo’s, a local Italian deli and bakery, I had to debate long and hard with myself whether or not I wanted 500g or 250g. It was a cost benefit analysis, but also a waistline benefit analysis. If I get a big tub, chances are there will be leftovers, making way for too many cheeky spoonfuls (and at 78% of your daily saturated fat in 4 tablespoons, well, you get it). If I get a small tub, I’m really not getting enough cheese for my buck. The winner was a 500g tub.
So with that 500g tub of luscious cheese, I was able to make my strawberry pizza. The combination of mascarpone with sugar and cinnamon made the “pizza” sauce which gave a richness to the flakey puff pastry and heightened the sweetness of the fresh strawberries. I drizzled white chocolate over top even though the recipe didn’t call for it, remembering how it enhanced my mum’s phyllo dessert. Since the recipe only called for about a half cup of cheese, a few cheeky spoonfuls were had and it was also used in a blueberry baked French toast to replace cream cheese.
There’s still a bit left in the fridge. I wonder what I should do with it…
For a number of years we have been spending the Canada Day Long weekend at our friends’ cottage just north of Kingston. The tradition is for the “kids” (now adults) to go up without parents (now grandparents) and partake in a few days of relaxing on the deck, fishing on the lake and making delicious cottage food. Okay, we imbibe a bit too.
For the last few years I have always offered a baked breakfast for one of the lazy mornings. First year it was a savory strata with ham and eggs, then I moved to a sweet blueberry and cream cheese strata. Over time, it has changed into a blueberry baked French toast which satisfies a large group and brings a smile to everyones face. The beauty of this breakfast is that it’s made the night before, and popped in to the oven the morning of. The aroma of cinnamon, sugar and blueberries pervades the noses of sleepy cottagers and slowly gets them to rise a little earlier than one would expect after some camp fire tequilas and impromptu dance parties.
This year I decided to not mess with a favourite, and brought a copy of the recipe on my beloved BlackBerry. Forgetting to download it and having no network service in the middle of cottage country, I had to wing it a bit. Was it 6 or 8 eggs? How many tablespoons of sugar? Or was it teaspoons? Luckily I had prepped some of the dry ingredients. One thing I did forget was that in order to feed the crowd of 8, I really need two long French baguettes and of course, I only picked up one. So I asked my brother and husband to pick up a loaf in the local town. Bless them for coming back with a massive loaf of Bavarian rye infused with caraway seeds. I had to chuckle at the thought of putting in the savory flavor into my sweet French toast, but I didn’t have a choice. I tactfully put the “good” bread on one side of the pan, and the “questionable” rye on the other. I was careful to serve the good stuff first. In the end it all tasted pretty good, and only I could truly taste the caraway where it had infused to the middle section of the pan.
This recipe is from Canadian Living and is available on their website: http://www.canadianliving.com/food/baking_and_desserts/baked_blueberry_french_toast.php
Sorry no photo – we ate it too quickly!
Yesterday I produced another batch of lemon macadamia biscotti for a Communitech bake sale today in support of their Ride to Conquer Cancer team. My dad, a Technology Mentor at the Accelerator Centre and Communitech Hub, asked if I would contribute a few treats. Baking and for a good cause? No problem Dad!
Perhaps what was even more exciting than baking this time around was a chance to brand my creations. As I long for a new logo and overhaul of my website, here was a prime opportunity to do a bit of experimenting. I picked up some supplies at Michaels Craft Store, including a hot pink pen, some gift tags and new ribbon. I envisioned it in my head: neatly scribed cards detailing my name, twitter handle, website and the ingredients. I was most concerned about including the ingredients so anyone with allergies could stear clear of the nuts.
While not design-perfect by any means, the concept of the Constant Baker is slowly starting to take shape. My cards had a handwritten warmth to them and the simple touches of a hot pink hand-tied bow in a clear bag showcasing the biscotti made me proud.
I can’t wait to prepare some more treats for another bake sale… or better yet, a store.
P.S. Special thanks to Craig for hand delivering these
The last baking quarter was truly uneventful. I was not making anything new or exciting. I blame the winter weather (which apparently is back today). However, now that I have a new inspiration for baking, I’m back at it. Only this time I’m baking dog treats.
Yes, you heard me, dog treats. A new dog owner of a 3 month old Siberian Husky, I am learning quickly that dog food isn’t some magical mix of non-human ingredients (as I may have thought <blushes>). The realization that I could make Diefenbaker (aka Dief) his own treats and food is owed to a copy of Arden Moore’s recipe book, Real Food for Dogs. My husband got it as a birthday present from my grandmother and after a day or so, I commandeered it, flipping through each recipe, a little too eager to go buy some liver to make the “Leap for Liver” treats.
Last night, I tried the “Dog Biscuits Baked with Love” recipe. It was made up of simple ingredients that I had on hand. Twenty minutes after the biscuits had cooled, Dief made is approval, finishing the treat, and then another, in a hurry.
And yes I tried one, but no, I don’t recommend them for human consumption.
2 cups unbleached wheat flour
1 cup cornmeal
Pinch of salt
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 teaspoons chopped fresh parsley
¾ cup chicken broth
Mix the dry ingredients together. Blend, the egg, oil, parsley and chicken brother together and add to dry mix. Stir into a dough and then knead a few times to get a smooth elastic dough. Roll out to ½ inch thickness and cut out shapes with your favourite cookie cutters. I used a mixture of small ones and medium sized ones. Bake for 15 minutes and let cool.
Tip: I’m also letting mine sit out today to get a little firmer so they are crunchier for dief and store a bit longer. How long they store is unclear, so I’ll let you know!
Before I had my own kitchen, I never really understood why my Mum insisted on requesting spatulas as gifts each Christmas. How many spatulas does the woman really need?!? Turns out, you need a lot (forgive me Mum!). Little ones, thin ones, massive ones, coloured ones; really there is no limit when it comes to the shape, size and functionality of a good spatula.
This Christmas, my sister delivered in the true spirit of spatula giving. Not only did my mum get one, but I got one too. This one is from the Martha Stewart collection and it is simply genius. It is made of a durable silicone and shaped to hug the curves of an electric mixer, in my case, my lovely KitchenAid artisan mixer. It’s the first time I’ve been able to successfully scrape the sides of the mixer quickly and effortlessly. It made easy work of my ginger molasses spice cookies. Well done Tine and well done Martha.
Desperate for some chocolate a few weeks ago, I read the recipe on the inside of the Baker’s 70% baking chocolate. I halved the recipe and made 2 good sized individual portions. A quick 15 minute recipe for deliciously rich and warm chocolate molten cakes. These are impressive and easy peasy to make. Check out the recipe here courtesy of Kraft. I dusted mine with powdered sugar and topped them with some fresh raspberries.
Last week I hosted my first Pampered Chef Party. I had heard about the products through others in the past and ran into one of the business owners at an open house for the Executive Women’s Golf Association about two years ago. This year, I really wanted to get some friends together who I don’t get to see very often and this seemed like the perfect way, so I reconnected with Kathy and we planned the party.
I must admit, I was nervous. I didn’t want people to feel pressured to purchase product. I was upfront about that from the initial invite right down to the day-before reminders. These types of business models can sometimes be uncomfortable for attendees, so I did the best to reassure my guests that the purpose was first and foremost to get together, and then secondly to explore some kitchen tools and equipment.
While the Kathy prepared one appetizer to showcase a variety of the products, I prepared in advance a few new desserts courtesy of the LCBO Food and Drink magazine (if you’re in Ontario you can pick up free copy at the LCBO while supplies last). Not all of them are available online but the Candy Cane Red Velvet Trifle was an impressive display of Christmas colours and it tasted REALLY good. The coolness of the peppermint cream balanced the red velvet cake and white chocolate ganache (tip: I used the President’s Choice Red Velvet Cake Mix to save some time). Another crowd pleasure were the white chocolate and clementine shortbread sandwiches. Rich and buttery, with a hint of citrus, they looked amazing and they tasted great. Finally I got back to using a piping bag (also realized I could probably invest in a bigger one) and made Peppermint Spritz sticks. Light and crisp (because of the butter and shortening combination), and gently dusted with powdered sugar, they were a perfect accompaniment to the rest of the goodies. The recipe yields about 40 sticks (if not more) so they are really handy for a crowd, plus as the baker, you can sample a lot without depleting your supply <grins>.
As the party came to a close, the guests picked out their items from the catalogue and submitted their orders. A perk to hosting is that you get special discounts and products based on the number of attendees and total sales. I was able to select a number of new things for my kitchen including some stoneware, baking scoops, spatulas, adjustable measuring spoons and other unique gadgets. Overall the party was a huge success and I got lots of follow up emails to say how much my guests enjoyed the experience.
Regardless of the reason for hosting a party, I still find myself lost in the excitement of following a new recipe, laughing when I have to run out to the store 30 minutes before guests are slated to arrive because I bought the wrong chocolate, and the great satisfaction of creating something that everyone can enjoy.
My mother-in-law and I have been passing recipes back and forth over email. It’s a nice way to keep in touch and share our similar passion for cooking and baking. One of the latest recipes is for something called a “luscious lemon drizzle cake”. It’s a moist, flavour-packed loaf cake perfect for afternoon tea (or breakfast J ). The lemon zest infuses every bite and the sweet lemon drizzle creates a very moist (but not soggy) texture that holds when you cut, keeps for a few days and travels well too. I’ve made two in the last week and perhaps the next best thing to eating it is how quick and easy it is. You will always have the ingredients on hand if you’re a regular baker. Also interesting to note is the use of margarine. I don’t often cook with margarine but I found the texture to be so good the first time, I didn’t want to mess around with it the second time. I used President’s Choice celeb olive oil margarine which made the cake low in saturated fat compared to using butter (waistline win!).
A note about the flour. S.R. for those of you who don’t know (myself included), is self raising, not regular sifted as I so cleverly thought. In short, it’s flour with a leavening agent. I’ve been using all-purpose (nutri-blend to be specific) both times without baking powder and love the cake. Try it either way!
Thank you Caz, for this delicious addition to my baking repertoire and also allowing me to share this delicious recipe. It’s definitely going to be that go-to dessert!
Luscious Lemon Drizzle Cake Recipe Cake 4oz (1/2 cup) Soft margarine 6oz (3/4 cup) Caster sugar 6oz (3/4 cup) S.R. Flour 4 Tablespoons milk 2 Large eggs Finely grate the rind of 1 lemon. Grease and line a 2lb loaf tin. Set oven to 350f or gas mark 4. Cream the marg and sugar, add eggs, sifted flour and finely grated lemon rind and milk.Mix well to a soft dropping consistency, place in the prepared loaf tin, smooth the top and bake for 40 to 45 minutes until firm. Syrup for the top 2 Rounded tablespoons of icing sugar Squeeze the lemon and use 3 tablespoons Sift the icing sugar and add the lemon juice a bit at a time to prevent lumps, this can be done while the cake is cooking, as soon as the cake is out of the oven spoon the syrup over the top evenly. Leave the cake in the loaf tin until completely cold, after it is cold then it can be turned out.
Photo Credits: Craig