Category Archives: cooking

WHEN HOME-MADE JUST CAN’T BE BEATEN

My pink lemonade

It took a long week-end, the first in many years, since working on a Saturday was par for the course of my job, to make me appreciate my lemon tree. I haven’t bought a lemon in the nine years I have lived in this house – this tree miraculously bears fruit twelve months a year and I typically step outside the kitchen and pluck one when needed, without giving it much thought. Until last Friday when, tired of the coyotes and other wildlife feasting on the lemons that fall to the ground, I set out to pick as many  ripe ones as I could. And, with all that bounty, I made lemonade.

Don’t laugh. I took immense pleasure in juicing lemons, finding the right proportion of simple syrup to please my palate and, finally, adding some end of Summer cherries to make pink lemonade.

Home-made noodles

The same pleasure that I took in watching my mother make pasta and meat sauce, the way the universe intended it to taste. Or slicing some perfect tomatoes from McGrath Farms and let them roast on a ricotta tart.

Tasty tomatoes

Somebody asked me this morning if I did anything fun over Labour Day Week-end. As a matter of fact, I did and it involved lounging around on the patio, consuming large quantities of ice-cold lemonade and steaming home-made pasta. And I didn’t even bother working out.

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CITRUS OLIVE OIL BUNDT CAKE

cooking

Citrus Olive Oil Bundt Cake with Honey Ice-Cream, Pistachio Dust and Berry Caramel

I never thought the day would come I would astound my mother with my cooking abilities. She knew I had been working in a professional kitchen for the last eight years but never saw me in action for the limited time she would come here for and, when I was vacationing in Italy, the last thing I felt like doing was cooking and, especially, making cakes. Now that she is here for a solid two months, I have been making food for her and she is most impressed with my desserts, asking me to write down recipes, watching me as I work dough and quizzing me on ingredients. What I make at home is all fairly easy so who knows what she would think if she saw some of the stuff we make at work.  I have clearly been on a cake binge recently, mainly for  her sake.

The following recipe was also a mainstay in our restaurant for quite some time. The original recipe (at this point heavily re-worked) came through the husband of a former chef. Don’t be put off by the idea of using extra virgin olive oil in the cake – it adds flavour and wonderful moisture and it won’t taste as if you were eating salad. My advice is to use a mild tasting extra virgin olive oil, more on the fruity side. Pastry flour is highly recommended to keep the batter light.

The version in the photograph came about thanks to some pretty sunflower molds that I was given and was inspired to use. The recipe will yield one bundt cake (with a little bit of batter left over) or 10 small ones.

RECIPE

2C + 2 T Pastry Flour

1 1/2 C Sugar

1/2 ts each Finely zested rind of Tangerine, Lemon and Orange (microplane zesters work best)

1 ts Baking Soda

1 ts Baking Powder

1 1/2 ts Salt

A few drops Lemon, Orange and Tangerine Oils* (optional)

3 Eggs

1 1/2 C Milk

1 C Canola or Corn Oil

1/2 C Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  1. Begin by combining the finely grated citrus zest with the sugar. Mix using your hands and allow the flavours to infuse while measuring the rest of the ingredients.
  2. Combine and sift dries (including sugar) in a large mixing bowl. Set aside.
  3. Combine wet ingredients with a whisk in another bowl.
  4. Add wet ingredients to dries slowly, whisking constantly to avoid lumps, but do not whisk too vigorously.
  5. Pour into very well sprayed bundt pan(s), filling about halfway.
  6. Bake at 325F if using a convection oven (about 20 minutes for individual, around 1 hour for a large bundt) or 350F if using a still oven (it will take a bit longer). Check cakes about halfway through baking time and rotate the pans.
  7. Bake until lightly golden brown and a wooden skewer comes out clean when inserted.

* Citrus oils can be purchased at gourmet food stores or on-line.

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FRENCH BUTTER CAKE – GATEAU BRETON

French cooking

Gateau Breton

As I started the process of cleaning my work computer in preparation for my departure, I have come across myriad of photos of creations that I served over the years. I hadn’t thought of this particular cake in a long time, a staple of Bretagne, originally consumed for breakfast, that I started making in individual portions and dressed up with caramelized peanut ice-cream.

The original recipe came to me through Anne Willan, an accomplished cook who used to own the French cooking school La Varenne and whose cookbooks are beautiful works of art and sources of inspiration. Ms. Willan makes the cake by hand but, in the interest of time-saving (and of serving many people), I started using my trusted mixer and I can’t say I noticed any difference.

Because this cake’s centrepiece is butter, the better the quality, the better the cake. You want a butter that is extremely high in fat content and low in water – I used Plugra, a fantastic French butter that is also divine just spread on bread (and then forget dinner). This cake can be stored in an airtight container up to two weeks, with the butter flavour becoming more intense as time goes by. Perfect to serve with coffee or tea.

Calvados (an apple liqueur) is not essential but a lovely addition that adds complexity to the overall cake.

Recipe – Serves 8

1 C/225 g High quality butter

6 Egg Yolks

2 C/250 g AP Flour

1 C/200 g Sugar

1 T Calvados

  1. Butter or spray one 8” (20 cm) tart pan, possibly fluted, and with a removable bottom. Mix the egg yolks in a small bowl and remove one teaspoon for the final glaze.
  2. Sift the flour and place it in the mixer. Cut the butter in small cubes and add it to the flour, together with the yolks, sugar and Calvados. Mix on low with a paddle attachment until the dough comes together. It will be pretty stiff.
  3. Transfer the dough to the pan, smoothing it with your palm, dipping it in water  so it doesn’t stick.
  4. Brush the surface of the cake with the yolk you set aside and then mark a lattice in the glaze with the tines of a fork. Place in the fridge for about 20 minutes.
  5. Bake at 35F/190C for 20 minutes. Reduce the heat to 356F/180C and bake 20/25 minutes longer, rotating it for even baking, until golden brown.
  6. Let it cool to warm and then unmold. The butter flavour will become more intense the longer you keep it.

 

 

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FRIED ZUCCHINI BLOSSOMS

$6 bought me eight, precious and wonderful looking zucchini blossoms at the Santa Monica Farmer’s Market. Not exactly cost-effective if preparing a low-budget meal but I have an incredibly soft spot for zucchini blossoms that I have been eating since I was a child.

Over the years, I have enjoyed them filled with all kind of goodies, from sardines to goat cheese but my first love is simply fried, tempura style. With my  mom in the kitchen, and with frying being one of her specialties, we got to work. Here is the result.

Perfect for an appetizer if you are entertaining, everybody will love the subtle, fresh taste of these blossoms.

RECIPE – Yields: 8 blossoms

8 Zucchini Blossoms

3/4 C AP Flour

3/4 C Sparkling water

1/2 ts Salt

1 ts Olive oil

A/N Canola oil, for frying

  1. In a shallow bowl place the flour and start adding the water, a bit at a time, mixing with a wooden spoon, until you have the consistency of a slush. Add salt and oil. Whisk until smooth.

    Whisk until smooth

  2. Wash the zucchini blossoms with a damp paper towel, being careful not to tear them.
  3. Heat about 1/4” of oil in a frying pan until very hot.
  4. Dip the blossoms, one at a time, in the batter and drop them in the hot oil. Fry them, turning them once or twice, until the batter feels hard and looks deep golden. Remove them with a slotted spoon and place them on plate covered with paper towels.
  5. Sprinkle some salt on top and squeeze a few drops of lemon and serve immediately.

Eat immediately!

 

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FOUR HAND SONATA

Dinner in Rome

Just because my mother is busy in the kitchen while staying with me for the next two months, it doesn’t mean I eschewed cooking altogether. It’s the first time, in our long and distinguished lives, that we are cooking together. Even as a grown-up, it was always my mom cooking my favourite meals whenever I would visit, with me relishing every bite but keeping my nose out of her kitchen. But with food having played a huge chunk in the last ten years of my life, most of them spent in a professional kitchen, it’s force of habit and, I won’t deny it, pleasure, that will make me shove some cauliflower in the oven just because, or concoct a dessert someone happened to mention.

The result of this tandem culinary activity is a fridge and freezer bursting at the seams, and a series of invitations extended to friends in an effort to consume this edible mound that keeps on growing.

As I observe my mother’s mottled hands as she rolls pasta (with the long rolling-pin she got past US customs) or deftly twirls tortelloni, she quizzes me as to the dressing I whipped up for the salad or will peek into the food processor to inspect my humus. As I try to hold on to or acquire what is second nature to her (rabbit with black olives anyone?), she opens up to new flavors and embraces foods I take for granted, such as guacamole, which she calls “that avocado thing your cousin makes”.

“Which counter do you want?” one of us will ask, as we divide the kitchen, pull out chopping boards and, like last Sunday, at the end of a brief cooking session, we’ll find out we have more food than we can possibly sit down and eat. Not surprisingly, Ottie and Portia are gaining weight at an alarming rate as my mother hasn’t become inure yet to the liquid, pleading eyes that will tactically position themselves either by the stove or the trash can. Whomever still believes dogs don’t have a thinking process of some sort, I beg them to reconsider.

A comment from Aunt Snow, aka the blogger behind Doves Today, on an old, heavy  colander belonging to her grandmother that she recently rescued, made me remember the old kitchen ware that was passed down from my grandmother and still very much in use in my mother’s kitchen as I was growing up: an imperfect and massive scale that my mother revamped by painting red; an ancient wooden coffee grinder with a giant cranking handle and a small drawer for the ground coffee; copper pots of every size, the tiny milk pot banged up beyond recognition – it’s as if the gadgetry of the ’60’s and ’70’s completely bypassed our house, with the only exception of Tupperware. Not much of it has survived and I wish I had squirreled it away when I had the chance. But in my ’30’s, I felt myself and my mother to be eternal and that our house would always be my personal museum.

My mother doesn’t realize how this gift of cooking together is the best 50th birthday present she could have ever given me. I don’t feel eternal anymore and, despite her resilience and endless energy, I can see the stiffness in my her joints. But I am not thinking about it just yet. For now, the rolling and chopping and whirring will go on so that I can pull out lasagna from the freezer sometime in December and remember these perfect Summer days.

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PASTA E FAGIOLI (ITALIAN BEAN SOUP)

When you work in a professional kitchen, the tendency to run amok with culinary gadgets is very strong. And whenever I enter a kitchen supply store, I am inclined to buy anything and everything for my home kitchen – sure, I will have the chinois because the 60 feet of cheesecloth still sitting in my pantry is not good enough! Why not an egg poacher? Then I remember I can poach eggs perfectly well in my crappy little saucepan – they might not be perfectly round but they are perfectly poached. Only the fact I abhor clutter stops me from adding useless crap to my counters. Then, if all else fails, I think of my mother, who cooks magnificent meals out of a postage stamp sized kitchen, with culinary utensils five decades old.

Cooking at home seldom requires the skills or instruments of a professional kitchen, although having huge cutting boards is something I am so used to I can’t do without, but, with my mom now cooking in my kitchen day and day out, I am reminded that good food does not equal a $200 knife. She already thinks I am off my rocker for having color coordinated cutting boards used only for certain items or that my fridge is organized according to health laws, that when I saw her chopping parsley with the scrappiest knife in my drawer, one that I had thought long lost and that she probably picked because it was the least intimidating, I didn’t have the heart to say anything. The pasta and fagioli she made with that parsley couldn’t have been improved by my Shun knife anyway.

RECIPE – Yields 4 portions

11 oz Dried Cranberry beans, soaked overnight and rinsed

3 T Parsley, chopped

1 Garlic Clove

5 T Tomato Sauce, possibly home-made

1 Carrot

1 sprig Rosemary

4 T Olive Oil

Salt and Pepper to taste

1 C Short pasta or handmade egg pasta roughly cut

  1. Cook the beans in plenty of water (enough to cover the beans) with the carrot, rosemary and salt. Bring the water to boil then let simmer until the beans are tender (about 1 hour)
  2. In the meantime, heat the olive oil in a small pan. Add garlic and garlic and cook for a couple of minutes (make sure not to cook the parsley). Add the tomato sauce, salt and pepper and let cook until the sauce thickens.
  3. Once the beans are cooked drain them but reserve the water.
  4. Mix the tomato sauce to the beans and, adding some of the reserved water, puree in a blender in several batches, adding water to taste, depending on the desired thickness. You probably won’t use all the water but you want it thin enough to be able to cook the pasta in it.
  5. Place the soup on the stove in a big pot, bring to a gentle boil and add the pasta. Cook until al dente and serve with olive oil.

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MY FAVOURITE GRANOLA

Let’s end the week with another sugar-free recipe. My first taste of granola was actually under the guise of Muesli, on my first trip to Switzerland as a child. Can’t say it was love at first sight. Now I chomp down granola dry, as a snack, if I need a pick me up during the day. Granola is so easy to make that I have forever foregone store-bought varieties. No matter how good they are, they can never match a home-made one. I tried infinite variations and the following recipe fell in my hands a few years ago – I think I found it in the New York Times and, if memory serves me, it belonged to a restaurant whose name now escapes me. What intrigued me was the use of extra virgin olive oil, rather than blander cooking oils.

When it first came out of the oven and I tasted it, I knew I had found my granola partner.  I make it regularly, store it in a jar and reach for it whenever a sweet craving strikes.

RECIPE

3 C Rolled oats

1 1/2 C Pistachios, hulled

1 C Pumpkin Seeds, hulled

1 C Unsweetened Coconut Chips

3/4 C Pure Maple Syrup

1/2 C Extra Virgin Olive Oil

1 ts Kosher Salt

1/2 C Honey (or brown sugar)

1/2 ts Cinnamon

1/2 ts Cardamom

3/4 C Dried Apricots, chopped or other dried fruit of your choice

 

  1. In a large bowl, combine oats, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, coconut chips, maple syrup, olive oil, honey (or brown sugar), salt, cinnamon and cardamom. Spread mixture on a baking sheet in an even layer and bake at 300F for about 45 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes, until golden all over and well toasted.
  2. Transfer granola to a bowl and add dried apricots.

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MAPLE POT DE CREME – Sugar Free

The cookies are definitely not sugar-free

It’s much easier to omit sugar from recipes that don’t need leavening agents, such as custards or fruit desserts like crumbles. Here is my revised version of a maple pot de creme. I insist on using Grade B Maple Syrup (and none of the fake stuff, that would be sugar anyway) as its taste is fuller and caramel-y. The original recipe calls from some brown sugar which I converted into agave syrup.

This is not exactly fat-free but we have been talking about avoiding sugar only. For now…

RECIPE – Yields 8 portions (4 oz ramekins)

1/2 C      Maple Syrup, Grade B

2 C          Heavy Cream

1/4 ts     Salt

1/4 ts     Vanilla Extract

3              Yolks

1               Egg

2 T          Agave Syrup

1. Place maple syrup in a sauce pan and bring to boil until thick and reduced by about half. Remove from heat and whisk in cream, salt and vanilla extract.

2. In a bowl combine egg, yolks and agave syrup and whisk until smooth. Slowly add the cream mixture, constantly whisking so the eggs won’t curdle.

3. Strain through a fine mesh strainer and pour into ramekins.

4. Place the ramekins in a roasting pan and add hot water to reach 1/3 up the side of the ramekins. Cover with foil and bake at 300F until set – about 30 minutes depending on oven.

5. Let cool and refrigerate for a few hours before serving.

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EVIL SUGAR (and how it works in baking)

Evil sugar and its healthier cousins

One of my best friends is, temporarily, on a restricted diet and lamenting the loss of sugar. Like me, actually even more so, she has a phenomenally sweet tooth and no meal is complete without something sweet enjoyed at the end of it. I have been limiting my sugar intake for a few years now, with complete abstinence during my 6 week yearly cleanse and, like most addictions, it has become easier and easier to eat less sugar – although I don’t think I could conceive of a life without it. My daily dose of dark chocolate testifies to that.

When I talk about sugar, I obviously intend the refined variety, and I include brown sugar (which is just sugar and molasses) and all those kinds that might be less refined such as Demerara or sugar in the raw but just mildly less unhealthy. No need to explain the famous sugar high or what the white powder does to your teeth but, recently, scientists have established a pretty solid link between sugar and cancer. Refined cane or beet sugar is a very recent addition to the human diet. Our forebears went for many centuries without it, until it was introduced in the late 1400’s and, even then, it didn’t become commonplace until the end of the 18th century as it was too expensive for anyone but the upper classes (earlier civilizations in Asia consumed sugar cane as early as 400 AD but certainly not in vast amounts).

What has worked for me, in my attempt to lower my sugar intake, include changing the way I think of breakfast that, most days, means a gigantic smoothie of fresh and frozen fruit, almond milk, a bit of avocado, protein powder and a splash of agave syrup. To my coffee, nowadays I add Stevia. On my hot cereal, I will pour either agave or maple syrup, and chopped dates have helped sweeten my home-made granola. I have passed all these suggestions on to my poor friend who, to her credit, has followed them to the letter but she is still begging for sugar-free dessert recipes. I know she means cakes and that is tricky.

Baking, more than an art, is a perfect alchemy of ingredients. Take one out and the whole sand castle falls apart. Substituting sugar in baking that is predicated on a batter rising is incredibly hard. Let’s look at why.

Sugar has many properties, amongst which the ability to inhibit gluten development, thereby making baked goods tender. It also does that by drawing water to its molecules – if one of your creations turns out a bit too dry, you might be able to overcome that by adding a bit more sugar.

Sugar caramelizes at 330F and it’s responsible for the pretty browning of your baked goods. Above all, it helps with the rising. Without going into too many chemical details, when you beat sugar and butter (or any other fat), the molecular structure of the sugar makes little tears in the fat, creating tiny pockets of air that will expand in the oven. Now you can see why substituting stevia, xylitol or other sweeteners is not going to create the same effect.

Xylitol (a sugar alcohol found in many plants and safe for diabetics) can be used with a 1:1 sugar ratio for any chewy baked goods (soft cookies, some muffins) but don’t expect it to brown. I like agave syrup better than honey, as the taste of honey is too distinctive; it can overpower a dessert and it’s harder to marry with other flavours. When using agave syrup, a good rule of thumb is to use 25% less than the recipe calls in sugar.

Once again, I have been going on at too much length. For a delectable sugar-free dessert, you will have to stay tuned.

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OLD FASHIONED TAPIOCA PUDDING

Small tapioca pearls

Bless the Mayans. Besides predicting the world will end this year, leaving behind impressive pyramids and playing a sort of basketball game with the heads of sacrificial victims or enemies, they were also responsible for  discovering and utilizing a multitude of foods we still enjoy today.

Cacao, for one, makes me forever indebted to the Mayans, who used to drink it pretty much the same way we drink cocoa nowadays (minus the sugar part); chia seeds, that have taken the health food community by storm, were also known to the Mayans who might not have been aware of the omega 3 fatty acids and the fiber the seeds contain but they knew they were mighty nutritious. And then there is tapioca, a by-product of the cassava root. Indigenous to Brazil and most of South America, the Spanish and Portuguese managed to spread it to the four corners of the world, and now cassava is grown pretty much everywhere.The Mayans, though, figured out how to remove the poisonous toxins before eating it, a process still required today.

Tapioca comes in many forms but in this country it’s mainly found as small or large pearls and flour.  Being gluten-free, the flour is ideal for baking, mixing it with other gluten-free flours. Tapioca lacks any protein but it does contain vitamin B and it is a decent source of fiber.

I like using tapioca as a thickening agent (in flour form) in any dessert where fruit needs to be cooked – it’s much gentler on the palate than cornstarch.

For that old staple, tapioca pudding, small pearls are recommended as large ones require overnight soaking.

Here is my true and tried Tapioca Pudding Recipe, which is adapted from Bob Red Mill’s .

1/3 C Small Tapioca Pearls

3 C Milk (you can use rice or almond milk too)

2 Eggs, separated

1/2 C Sugar

1 Vanilla Bean, split lengthwise, seeds removed (or 1/2 ts vanilla extract)

1/4 ts Salt

  1. Soak the tapioca pearls in water for 30 minutes.
  2. Drain, place in a sauce pan with the milk, add the salt and heat on medium heat until boiling.
  3. Break up the egg yolks with a fork in a small bowl. Add a ladle of the hot tapioca mixture and whisk vigorously, then pour into the pan and keep on whisking. Simmer, uncovered, for 10/15 minutes, stirring often.
  4. Beat the egg whites with the sugar to soft peaks. Fold about 3/4 cup of hot tapioca into the egg whites, then gently fold the mixture back into the saucepan. Stir over low heat for about 3 minutes.
  5. Remove from the stove and scrape the vanilla seeds into the pudding. Serve warm or chilled.

You can serve it as is, or add fresh or dried fruit. Cocoa powder added before folding the egg whites in, will make a great chocolate tapioca pudding.

You can even make it without sugar and fold agave syrup to taste at the end.

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