December 24, 2011

Baba au rhum

I can't actually remember the first time my mom made Baba au rhum. But somewhere in my teenage years, it became a yearly tradition and she wowed family and friends (and got them tipsy too!) with this recipe. A Baba - you may be wondering - is a yeasted brioche bun that is soaked in rum syrup. My mom would make this dessert only once a year at Christmas, so it was a cherished and much-anticipated holiday treat. At this time of year, I miss my mom so much. She would get giddy and mischievous about Christmas, like a little kid. And this recipe is a perfect expression of her exuberance and Christmas cheer. She would usually put a fair bit more rum than the recipe calls for so her Baba au rhum really packed a good punch, and I'm pleased to say I am proudly carrying this tradition forward.

Along with making Babas for our family, the week before Christmas, my mom would make them for her knitting circle: a group of warm, witty, creative, and zany women who meet once a week at Gaspereau Valley Fibres, the gorgeous wool store down the road where she worked for many years. She loved those knitting afternoons with a passion! She would always come home with rosy cheeks and a sparkle in her eye. When I was home visiting, I would sometimes drop in on the group with her but always as an onlooker, never as a knitter. But recently, after years of resisting it, I finally started knitting, thanks to the patient instruction of my roommate's mom. So this year, I decided to make the Babas and bring them and my wonky half-finished mittens to my mom's knitting comrades. It's easy to see why she loved these women so much. I also understand where that twinkle in her eye came from, because holy moley (!), the conversations over there can get pretty naughty!! Which makes it all the more understandable that my mom drove around with this bumper sticker on her car.

From the snowy Gaspereau Valley in Nova Scotia, here is wishing you all a very wonderful Christmas eve, and a joyful Christmas day. May there be magic in the air and delicious goodies in your belly!

Baba au rhum
This recipe is from the Madame Benoit cookbook, which was my mom's cooking bible. Madame Benoit is kind of the Canadian version of Julia Child and though our copy of The Encyclopedia of Canadian Cuisine is very worn, missing its cover, and weighs a ton, it is still my go-to cookbook when I am home and I love reading my mom's handwritten notes on her favourite recipes.

1 pkg active dry yeast (2 1/4 tsp)
1 tsp sugar
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups flour (I used light spelt)
4 eggs lightly beaten
1 tbsp sugar
2/3 cup soft butter
2 tbsp currants

1 cup sugar
1 1/2 cup water
1 cup rum

Stir 1 tsp. sugar in warm water.  Add yeast, let stand 10 min. Sift flour in the middle of a large bowl, and make a well in the middle.  Pour in the eggs and yeast mixture. Work with fingers until you have a soft dough.  Knead in the bowl for 2 min.  Cover and let rise in a warm place, until double in bulk (about 2 hours). Punch down.  Add the 1 Tbsp sugar, soft butter and currants and work until well blended.  Knead 3 - 4 min. Fill greased baba molds (or muffin pans) to half full with the dough.  Cover and let rise in a warm place until double in bulk.  Bake in 450F oven for 10 min, then reduce heat to 350F and bake 20 - 30 min depending on mold size.  For the syrup: boil sugar and water 5 minutes until you have a light syrup.  Remove from heat.  Cool completely before adding the rum. Generously pour the rum syrup all over the babas or as my mom used to do, put the babas right in a large bowl filled with the syrup and let them sit in the syrup so that they absorb as much of it as they possibly can. The rum syrup should soak right through to the centre of the baba. (I generally double the syrup recipe to make sure there is enough). Whipped cream goes wonderfully with these as it softens the intensity of the rum.

I was hoping to get this post up in ample time before Christmas and I'm a little late... but these also make a perfect New Year's Day dessert so I hope some of you out there will try these!

December 20, 2011

Massaged Kale Salad

The first time I ever heard of massaged kale salad, my initial reaction was what the hell kind of hippy salad is that? (I'm allowed to say things like that because I grew up pretty much as 'hippy' as it gets and I'm all about (affectionate) self-deprecation, like this Portlandia clip which is basically a spot-on parody of my personal approach to meat-eating).

But I gave the salad a try, because I like to play with my food and massaging kale sounded fun. This recipe has since become a standard favourite. Massaging the kale with lemon juice, olive oil and salt helps break down the cell walls of the kale leaves and makes it easier to digest. I'm sharing it with you today because (aside from being DEE-licious!) it's a very festive recipe that looks great on the holiday dinner table. Plus at this time of year when there's such mountains of rich foods all around, it's nice to get some raw, fresh goodness on the table and this salad is packed with antioxidants! I was also suspecting some of you out there still have kale in your gardens because I sure do...

I took this photo 2 days ago, when it felt like -20 celsius. How cool to be able to harvest your food in the middle of December! (eh?!) I try to eat as local as I can year-round but sadly kale is the only local ingredient in this recipe. The thing is, if I had to name 3 non-local things that I can't resist, it would be the 3 other ingredients in this salad: avocado, pomegranate, and fennel. Actually, I guess fennel can be local but hard to find the local stuff this time of year. So here you go... a local / un-local salad. (No time to make a video today but I've got a Christmassy ones coming your way so stay tuned!)

Massaged Kale Salad with avocado, fennel, and pomegranate
1 bunch of kale
1 pomegranate
1 fennel bulb
1 avocado

For the massage oil: 
Juice of 1 lemon
1/4 cup olive oil
1 tsp. salt

Rip the kale leaves into pieces, discarding the stems. Mix the juice of one lemon, olive oil and salt together and pour half of it on the kale. Now get intimate with that kale! Rub the massage oil into the leaves for about 10 minutes, until the kale is a deeper green and shrinks down in size somewhat. You can also taste it to see how chewable / flavourful it is. Thinly shave the fennel, chop avocado into cubes, and de-seed the pomegranate. Pour on the remainder of the dressing. Mix together & there you have it. 

December 13, 2011

Chestnut Mousse in Lemon Thyme Shortbread Cups

I remember the first time I ate a chestnut. I was 7 years old, it was a cold December day in Vancouver, and the sight and smell of roasting chestnuts on a street corner lit up a fire in my soul. I was in complete awe of the magic and warmth of them in my hands.

One of my favourite things about late fall in Toronto is that baskets of chestnuts start appearing at all the neighbourhood fruit stands. I love roasting them up at this time of year, it's so easy and such a delicious treat with egg nog or a cup of tea. And it's a healthy one at that! They are the only nut that contains vitamin C, they also contain folate (so they're great to eat during pregnancy), and they have cancer-fighting tannins. To roast them, all you have to do make a cut down the side and put them in a 400 F oven for about 20 minutes. Easy.

For a long time, I thought edible chestnuts couldn't grow here and that we only had imports. But The Big Carrot has beautiful shiny Ontario-grown organic chestnuts. They are double the price of the Italian imports, but it's worth it because they are as fresh as can be!

Now, here is the thing about chestnuts that truly makes my heart skip a beat: crème de marron. This is the French chestnut purée that is cooked in syrup and vanilla, so that it turns into a thick, gooey jam. Whenever I spend time in France or Italy, I pack as many cans & jars of the stuff as I can fit in my bags.

My mom used to mix equal parts crème de marron and whipped cream as a special dessert. No big deal you're probably thinking, but if you're like me, this combination will have you down on your knees. I can't even find the words to say how much I love the rich velvety mixture of these 2 things put together. And it takes 5 minutes to make. Open the can, whip some cream, mix the 2 and voilà!  Instant gourmet fast food. One Easter, my mom served it in goblets made of dark chocolate. It was exquisite. For this version, I decided to make little cups out of lemon thyme shortbread since it felt kind of festive, and we have some thriving lemon thyme in our garden. 

But making this recipe turned into an epic adventure because I decided to make the crème de marron from scratch for the first time ever. It was very satisfying to make on my own. However, a word of caution: it took me a whole afternoon to remove the chestnut meat from the shells, so it was a long tedious process. (Next time I think I will just roast them instead of boiling them). If you're pressed for time, I recommend you buy the store-bought stuff if you can get your hands on it.

250 ml whipped cream
1 cup creme de marron (for recipe see below)

(Note: if you don't have time to make these, you can instead opt for waffle bowls, chocolate cups, meringue nests, basically anything sweet and yummy that will serve as a vessel for the chestnut & whipped cream, but be sure not to overpower it, the flavours are subtle and you won't want to miss out)

1 cup butter
1/2 cup sugar
2 1/4 cup flour
1 tbsp grated lemon rind (make sure it's organic, they spray nasty stuff on citrus) 
fresh lemon thyme leaves

Beat the sugar and butter. Add the flour with thyme & lemon rind and mix into soft dough. Roll out to 1/2 cm thick and cut into large circles. Carefully press into muffin tins and bake at 350 F oven for about 12 to 15 minutes. Remove from muffin tin and cool fully. Spoon in the chestnut mousse and garnish. 

1 kg chestnuts
600 grams sugar
vanilla beans

Make a long cut on the side of each chestnut.  Boil in several litres of water for about 10 minutes. (Or roast in the oven). Here is a good video showing one particular cutting-boiling technique. The main thing is to be able to remove all shells and skins so you are just left with the nut. Once all the chestnuts are skinned, put them in a big pot with a cup of water (add more later if it gets too dry). Cook the chestnuts and water until you can crush them easily with a fork (about 25 minutes). Cool and purée them with hand blender. Weigh the purée. You should have about 1kg. Use 600 grams of sugar for each kilo of chestnut puree. (Traditional recipes say more but I find them too sweet). Boil the sugar with 1 cup of water until a syrup is obtained that forms a soft blob when dropped in a glassful of water. (Just before the candy stage). Mix in the chestnut puree at this stage with your vanilla beans. Simmer for about 20 minutes and remove the vanilla. Your crème de marron should be very thick. You can bottle it up as you would jam (or if you're going to use it right away, simply store it in the fridge).

December 09, 2011

Roasted Pepper Ketchup

I have a confession to make. I've had a bad attitude about canning in the city ever since I moved here. Don't get me wrong, I love canning and I have big aspirations to grow most of my own food one day in the near future and hopefully become an expert canner. But Toronto gives me canner's block. You see, I come from a place in Nova Scotia where we're surrounded by wild blackberries, crabapples, mountains of zucchinis in every garden, U-picks down the road, and a farmer's market overflowing with organic local goodness. Nova Scotia is a canner's paradise and in the summer, I get incredibly homesick in the big city. It's not that there's no good local organic produce to be had in Toronto, far from it, there is a thriving food movement with farmer's markets and all kinds of urban farming projects. Thankfully, this fall something happened that broke down my sad case of canner's block and knocked my bad attitude on its ass. I met Tonya is what happened. 

I met Tonya on an Urban Garden Veg Tour I went on back in September, organized by a friend of a friend. The tour meandered through the west end with veggie gardeners opening up their yards to the public. I was completely blown away by the lush harvest that Torontonians are reaping. From the deck on top of her car garage, Tonya had over 110 recycling bins filled with healthy thriving veggies. I found her determination to produce her own food right here in the big city completely inspiring. When I saw her jaw-dropping peppers (which you'll see in the video), I had to know what she had in mind for them. And when I heard the passion in her voice as she talked about canning and transforming her garden's harvest into delicious food for her family, I couldn't resist inviting myself over to film her cooking a batch of roasted pepper ketchup. 

Roasted Pepper Ketchup from Kitchen Vignettes on Vimeo.

(I didn't include it in the video, but I have to point out that while making the roasted red pepper ketchup, Tonya was simultaneously cooking up a giant batch of fig and balsamic vinegar jam which bubbled away on the stove all afternoon and made the kitchen smell like heaven. She gave me a jar to take home which I've been savouring with cheeses and trying to make last for as long as possible. Yum!)

From the book Put ‘em Up! by Sherri Brooks Vinton 

2 pounds tomatoes
2 pounds red bell peppers
1 medium onion, chopped
1 cup cider vinegar
1 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp salt
2 garlic cloves, sliced
1 tsp allspice
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp cloves

Prepare an ice-water bath in a large bowl or clean sink. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop the tomatoes into the water, no more than 1 pound at a time, and return to a boil. Blanch for 1 minute. Scoop the tomatoes out of the water with a slotted spoon and plunge them into the ice-water bath. Continue blanching the tomatoes in batches. Remove from the ice bath and drain. Peel, core, and crush the tomatoes. 

Char the bell peppers in a hot oven (around 475 C ) until charred around the edges. Put into paper bags to make them "sweat" which will make it easier to remove the skins. Roughly chop.

Combine the tomato pulp, chopped peppers, onion, vinegar, brown sugar, salt, garlic, allspice, cinnamon, and cloves in a large nonreactive saucepan and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for about 10 minutes, until the onions are translucent. Remove from the heat and puree with a stick blender. Return the puree to the heat and simmer over low heat until thickened, 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Remove from the heat.

Can using the boiling-water method. Ladle into clean, hot 4-ounce or half-pint canning jars, leaving 1/4 inch of headspace. Release trapped air. Wipe the rims clean; center lids on the jars and screw on jar bands. Process for 15 minutes. Turn off heat, remove canner lid, and let jars rest in the water for 5 minutes. Remove jars and set aside for 24 hours. Check seals, then store in a cool, dark place for up to 1 year.