From the kitchen

A jar or two of pickles, jam, sauce and relish is always a welcome gift among our families and friends.
But, for the holidays, we like to take it up a notch. This year, we created two entirely different themed gifts, both containing preserves — one for David’s parents and one for David’s brother and sister-in-law.

Caesar kit.

Caesar kit
This gift started with my spicy pickled beans — a great Caesar garnish — and evolved almost serendipitously from there.
During a trip to New York State this summer, we discovered the Fee Brothers celery bitters (and fortuitously, a local kitchen store began stocking them this fall). A dash or two will add a distinct celery flavour to your drink without the saltiness of, well, celery salt.
David’s mom has developed a taste for expensive vodka. We thought it time to introduce her to Russian Standard, a premium wheat vodka sold at a very reasonable price.
Horseradish is must in a Caesar in my opinion. Holbros Extra Hot is our favourite brand.
David thought we needed a rimmer; I refused to go with celery salt. I searched the web and found a recipe for tomato basil dust on Cottage Life, which I adapted for this purpose.

Tomato Basil Dust
Adapted from Cottage Life.

Ingredients
115 g (4 oz) sun-dried tomatoes
15 mL (1 tbsp) dried basil
15 mL (1 tbsp) of Murray River pink flake salt
5 mL (1 tsp) fresh ground black pepper

Method
Finely chop sun-dried tomatoes. Dry on parchment-lined baking sheet in 175 Fahrenheit oven for 1-1⁄2 to 2 hours. Turn off heat, open oven door, and allow to cool.
In electric grinder, grind small amounts of dried tomato to a fine powder.
Sift tomato powder into bowl, regrinding any large granules.
Mix in the remaining ingredients.
Store in tightly sealed jar away from light, heat and moisture.

Barbecue gift pack.

Barbecue gift pack
The idea for this gift came from the recipient. David’s brother enjoys barbecuing but expressed an interest in expanding his repertoire.
So, I printed out three of our favourite recipes, Maple Dijon Cedar-Planked Salmon, Spatchcock Mustard Herb Chicken and Bourbon Glazed Striploin Roast, and assembled the ingredients (minus the protein and a few basics like oil, salt and pepper) to make all three.
David cut a cedar plank from his stash for the salmon, we added a silicone glove for safety and tucked it all into a grilling basket (good for sides of potatoes or vegetables).
The basket also includes three on-theme preserves: corn relish, dill pickle relish and barbecue sauce.
Here are the recipes we included. The spatchcock chicken recipe comes from Canadian Living. The origins of the others are a mystery.

Maple Dijon Cedar-Planked Salmon

Ingredients
salmon fillet (or steelhead trout or rainbow trout)
maple syrup
Dijon mustard
cedar plank

Method
Soak cedar plank it water for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Mix together equal parts maple syrup and Dijon.
Put fish on plank. Brush with half of glaze.
Place plank on hot grill. Cook for 15-20 minutes, brushing with remaining glaze halfway through.
Time will depend on size and thickness of fillet. Fish will be firm and opaque when ready.

Spatchcock Mustard Herb Chicken
Spatchcock, which means removing the backbone of a chicken and flattening it out, is an old Irish term, abbreviated from dispatch cock, an order barked at cooks to get the chicken off the spit and out to the customer. Flattening a whole chicken means that you can grill it over direct heat in less than an hour.

Ingredients
1-1/2-2 kg (3-4 lb) whole chicken
60 mL (1/4 cup) Dijon mustard
30 mL (2 tbsp) chopped fresh herbs or 15 mL (1 tbsp) dry (tarragon, rosemary or thyme)
30 mL (2 tbsp) wine vinegar
30 mL (2 tbsp) vegetable oil
2 mL (1/2 tsp) each salt and pepper

Method
In small bowl, stir mustard, herbs, vinegar, oil, salt and pepper. Set aside.
Using kitchen shears, cut chicken down each side of backbone. (Remove backbone and save for stock.)
Turn chicken breast side up; press firmly on breastbone to flatten. Tuck wings behind back.
Place in shallow glass dish; brush with mustard mixture. Cover and refrigerate for 8 hours.
Place chicken, bone side down, on greased grill over medium heat. Close lid and grill, turning once, until juices run clear when thigh is pierced, 50 minutes.
Transfer to cutting board. Tent with foil; let stand for 10 minutes.

Bourbon Glazed Striploin Roast

Ingredients
1-1/2-2 kg (3-4 lb) well-marbled striploin
80 mL (1/3 cup) bourbon
80 ml (1/3 cup) soy sauce
30 mL (2 tbsp) brown sugar
30 mL (2 tbsp) wine vinegar
30 mL (2 tbsp) vegetable oil
2 mL (1/2 tsp) fresh ground pepper
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced

Method
Combine all ingredients except striploin
Place marinade and roast in plastic container and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight, turning roast occasionally to ensure even marinating.
Place drip pan under grill. Heat barbecue to approximately 400 Fahrenheit.
Place roast on grill and cover. Cooking time will depend on size of roast and desired doneness. Check temperature after 25 minutes.
Transfer roast to cutting board. Rest for 10-15 minutes before slicing.

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Granny’s fudge

My great-grandmother (who we called Granny) made the best fudge. She used four ingredients — milk, butter, brown sugar and vanilla, all measured by eye. She cooked the first three on the stove until the mixture reached just the right consistency, then added the vanilla, removed the pot and stirred and stirred.
Stirring, she said, was the secret to really good fudge.
I don’t know that anyone in my family has successfully recreated her recipe, but I think this year I have come close.
When I found Marion’s Fudge recipe on Sue Riedl’s Cheese and Toast blog, I had a good feeling. It calls for cooking the caramel until the soft ball stage and then beating it with an electric mixer until it starts to crystallize.
The mixer, I thought, would have the same effect as Granny’s stirring.
What I licked from the beaters and bowl has that familiar taste and consistency. I’ve resisted (since Saturday!) cutting into the fudge because I want to have some to share with my family when they visit Dec. 27.
Sue’s recipe calls for Becel margarine and whipping cream. I used unsalted butter and light cream (18 per cent) because that’s what I had — and I’m a rebel like that.

The recipe comes close to replicating my great-grandmother's fudge.

Marion’s Fudge (my version)

Ingredients
250 mL (1 cup) packed brown sugar
250 mL (1cup) white sugar
90 mL (6 tbsp) unsalted butter
175 mL (3/4 cup) light cream (18 per cent)
5 mL (1 tsp) vanilla

Method
Grease a 20-cm (8-inch) square dish and set aside.
Have a medium bowl ready with vanilla already added.
Into a medium, heavy bottom pot, add sugars, butter and cream.
Heat over high and stir to combine. Let boil until a candy thermometer (or digital thermometer) reads 240 F (soft ball stage). This will take about 10-12 minutes.
Pour mixture into medium bowl.  Using a hand mixer, mix on medium-high (careful not to splatter as this is extremely hot) for several minutes until splatter on bowl starts to crystallize and gets dense when you wipe it with a finger. It will be fudge-like.
Pour mixture into dish and allow to cool. Slice and share.

Rabbit repellant

Last spring, I purchased four small blueberry plants and planted them in one corner of my vegetable garden. The birds and I ate a few berries, but mostly I just let them grow. Last winter, our local rabbits made a meal of them, leaving just a few short, raggedly branches.
This spring, I purchased three more, slightly larger, blueberry plants, expanded the edible garden and planted them near the others. The original plants slowly recovered over the summer although are still smaller than the second group.
I was determined my blueberries would not become a mid-winter rabbit snack for the second year in a row.
So, David and I (but mostly David) constructed this cage out of one-by-twos and some sturdy wire fencing. Once the ground freezes (some time in January, if the forecasters are to be believed), it should be impervious to any jumping, digging, hungry creatures.

The blueberries are ready for winter.

Holiday baking, round 2: Favourites

I marked the arrival of our new (convection!) oven last weekend by making two seasonal musts in our house: chocolate chip shortbread cookies and gingersnaps.
I’m usually something of a minimalist when it comes to kitchen gadgetry, but together my KitchenAid stand mixer (purchased three years ago) and the new oven have radically reduced the time it takes me to bake a batch of cookies.
I brought some of my results to a family potluck at my grandparents and wrapped a couple dozen for a charity bake sale at work.

Chocolate chip shortbread cookies.

Chocolate chip shortbread cookies
This recipe came from my home economics teacher aunt more than 20 years ago. They are crisp, slightly delicate and melt-in-your-mouth. My chef sister has made a dozen variations over the years: substituting cocoa for part of the flour and white chocolate chips for semi-sweet; adding nuts, dried fruit or crushed candy or making slightly chewier drop cookies instead of the thin, crisp pressed versions. For my money (and time in the kitchen), you can’t beat the original.
Makes about 60 cookies.

Ingredients
560 mL (2-1/4 cups) flour
2 mL (1/2) tsp salt
375 mL (1-1/2 cups) butter, softened
250 mL (1 cup) icing sugar
10 mL (2 tsp) vanilla
375 mL (1-1/2) cup mini chocolate chips

Method
Sift icing sugar.
Sift together flour and salt.
In bowl of electric mixer, cream butter. Beat in sugar and vanilla. Gradually add flour and mix until incorporated.
Remove bowl from mixer and stir in chocolate chips.
If dough is quite soft, refrigerate for 30 minutes.
Form 2.5-cm (1-inch) balls. Using a flat-bottomed glass, flatten on cookie sheet to 5-cm (2-inch) diameter.
Bake in 325 Fahrenheit oven for 10 to 11 minutes.

Gingersnaps in the oven.

Gingersnaps
I’ve used many recipes for ginger cookies over the years. This year, when I pulled out my most often used recipe, I realized it called for corn syrup, which I’d neglected to buy. By the time I found a bottle at the back of my baking supplies cupboard, I’d already committed to this recipe from Joy of Baking.
The result is spicy little cookies with just the right amount of crunch for a gingersnap. I’ll be making them again — probably within the next two weeks.
Makes about 48 cookies.

Ingredients
185 mL (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, room temperature
125 mL (1/2 cup) brown sugar (recipe calls for dark; I used light)
125 mL (1/2 cup) granulated white sugar
60 mL (1/4 cup) molasses
1 large egg
2 mL (1/2 tsp) pure vanilla
500 mL (2 cups) all purpose flour
2 mL (1/2 tsp) baking soda
1 mL (1/4 tsp) salt
10 mL (2 tsp) ground ginger
7 mL (1-1/2 tsp) ground cinnamon
2 mL (1/2 tsp) ground cloves
granulated sugar for rolling

Method
In bowl of electric mixer, beat butter and sugars until light and fluffy (2 to 3 minutes).
Add molasses, egg, and vanilla extract and beat until incorporated.
In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, baking soda, salt and spices.
Add to butter mixture and mix until well combined.
Cover and chill the batter for about 30 minutes or until firm.
Preheat the oven to 350 Fahrenheit (180 Celsius). Line two baking sheets with parchment paper.
Place about 125 mL (1/2 cup) of white sugar on a small plate.
Roll chilled dough into 2.5-cm (1-inch) balls. Roll balls in sugar and place on baking sheet about 5 cm (2 inches) a part. Flatten slightly using the bottom of a glass.
Bake for 12 to 15 minutes or until cookies feel dry and firm on top. The longer the cookies bake, the crisper they will be. Cool before eating.

Holiday baking, round 1: Christmas cake

I may be in the minority here, but I grew up regarding Christmas cake, as my family calls fruitcake, as a special treat — something to be savoured in small slivers after a turkey dinner.
My mother made this fruitcake for decades, wrapping and mailing or hand delivering it to our grandparents, great-grandmother and occasionally aunts and uncles. The recipe makes a large, dense cake in an angel food cake pan. My maternal grandmother cuts hers into sections and freezes it, bringing it out for guests such as her bridge group throughout the year.
When my older brother and I left home for university, Mom began making smaller cakes for us to take back after the holiday break. It was one treat I never had to share with my roommates.
Two years ago, Mom passed the cake-making duties on to me.
The numbers of recipients have dwindled on my side. But, having married into a family of fruitcake lovers, I’ve added a few others to the list.
So, every November, I visit the bulk store and fill a cart with candied cherries, diced mixed fruit, orange peel, raisins, pecans and walnuts, and then spend a few days stirring and baking. For the past couple of years, I’ve made three of these enormous cakes — one for my maternal grandparents and two others to be divided among parents and siblings.
This year, however, my grandmother requested a smaller cake. I bought some new cake pans and used one recipe to make three cakes — 15 cm, 20 cm, 23 cm. I gifted the medium-sized one to my grandparents at our annual extended family gathering this past weekend. David and I have been sampling the smallest. Slices of the larger one will be part of a tray of sweets we take to David’s family for Christmas and served to guests, including my immediate family who we are hosting on Dec. 27.
I had thought to make a second batch, but when my oven died Nov. 25, it seemed as though fate telling me one was enough this year. If I get a “Where’s the fruitcake?” or two from our relatives maybe I’ll up my quota again next year.

Christmas cakes.

Christmas cake
Ingredients
225 g (8 oz) candied green cherries
225 g (8 oz) candied red cherries
900 g (32 oz) diced mixed fruit
110 g (4 oz) candied orange peel
250 mL (1 cup) dark seedless raisins
375 mL (1-1/2 cups) walnut halves
500 mL (2 cups) pecan halves
875 mL (3-1/2 cups) all purpose flour
454 g (1 pound) butter, softened
375 mL (1-1/2) cups sugar
6 eggs
5 mL (1 tsp) salt

Method
Line 25-cm (10-inch) tube pan with foil, smooth.
Cut cherries in half.
In large bowl or pot, combine cherries, 175 mL (3/4 cup) of liqueur, remaining fruit and nuts. Let stand 10 minutes. Stir in 500 mL (2 cups) flour until fruit is coated.
In another bowl, with mixer at medium speed, beat butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Gradually add eggs, salt, remaining flour and liqueur and beat until well mixed.
Bake at 300 Fahrenheit for 2-1/2 hours or until cake passes the toothpick test.
Keep refrigerated. Freezes well.