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.

Chocolate orange surprise cakes

Whether making or eating, I can generally take or leave desserts.
But if I feel a meal (or the company) calls for one, individual cakes are good bet.
Baked in ramekins, they encourage small portions appropriate for dessert, bake quickly while you’re lingering over wine after the main course and allow for nearly endless variations.
I made these cakes last week. I found a recipe on Two Spoons, which was in turn inspired by a recipe in Julia Le Clerc’s Made By Hand. Don’t you just love the way recipes travel and evolve? I followed this one pretty closely.
I changed the title and asked my husband to name the surprise ingredient. He guessed dried cherries, which was pretty close. The prunes, dark chocolate and cocoa make these cakes intense and rich — without the addition of butter or oil.

Chocolate orange surprise cakes

Chocolate orange surprise cakes — with the surprise ingredient.

Ingredients
50 g pitted prunes, finely chopped
125 mL (1/2 cup) fresh orange juice and water (use freshly squeezed juice of one orange
50 g dark eating chocolate (70 per cent cocoa)
30 mL (2 tbsp) cold water
1 large egg
60 mL (1/4 cup) brown sugar
zest of 1 orange
pinch sea salt
30 mL (2 tbsp) cocoa
60 mL (1/4 cup) flour
2 mL (1/2 tsp) baking soda

Method
Preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit.
Heat prunes and orange juice/water mix on medium heat to soften the prunes and reduce the liquid until thickened.
Beat the egg and sugar on high until pale and frothy.
Remove prunes from heat. Stir in chocolate and cold water.
Fold chocolate mixture into egg mixture. Add orange zest.
Sift in dry ingredients and fold until just incorporated.
Divide between 4 125-mL (1/2-cup) ramekins.
Bake about 20 minutes. Cool on a rack.
Dust with icing sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.

Mini-muffins

Last winter, I added mini-muffin making to my Sunday morning routine. Using two basic recipes and adding whatever fruit (bananas, berries, apples, peaches, pears) or vegetable (zucchini, pumpkin, carrot) I had on hand, plus complementary flavourings (spices, grated ginger, lemon or orange peel), I made a different variety every week until the weather got too hot for baking.
I like mini muffins because eating two of something is so much more satisfying than eating just one, and yet two mini-muffins are still less muffin than one large.
A batch baked on Sunday gives us enough for lunches/snacks for the week.
With the cooler weather returning, I decided to bake a batch this weekend.
Starting with a basic honey wheat muffin recipe, I used the buckwheat honey we bought during a road trip to the Finger Lakes region of New York State this summer and a few of the too-ripe-for-eating bananas I had stashed in the freezer.

Honey wheat banana muffins, made with buckwheat honey.

Below are the two basic recipes I use as my starting point. Both are from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook. My husband received this book as a gift from family friends when he first left home. It is a great source for basic, classic recipes and information like how long it takes to roast a 10-kilogram stuffed turkey.
I’ve altered the baking time for mini-muffins. For regular muffins, bake for 18 to 20 minutes.

Basic muffins

Ingredients
675 mL (1-3/4 cups) all-purpose flour
80 mL (1/3 cup) sugar (white or brown)
10 mL (2 tsp) baking powder
1 beaten egg
175 mL (3/4 cup) milk
60 mL (1/4 cup) cooking oil

Additions
Add whatever combinations of fruit, nuts, seeds, spices and flavourings you like.
Blueberry and orange peel; banana and cardamom; pumpkin, allspice and nutmeg; shredded pear and fresh ginger; apple, walnut and cinnamon; carrot and nutmeg; and poppy seed and lemon peel are just a few of the combinations we have tried. I also add ground flax seed or wheat germ.

Substitutions
Whole wheat, spelt, buckwheat or other flours for all or part of all-purpose flour.
Large flake oats for about half the flour.
Low-fat plain yogurt for the milk.
Juice for the milk.

Method
Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit.
Sift flour. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.
Combine wet ingredients in a second bowl.
Add wet ingredients all at once to dry ingredients. Mix to combine. (Batter should still be lumpy.)
Spray mini-muffin tins lightly with cooking spray, fill to nearly full with batter.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden.
Makes 32 to 36 mini muffins.

Honey Wheat Muffins

Ingredients
250 mL (1 cup) all-purpose flour
125 mL (1/2 cup) whole wheat flour
10 mL (2 tsp) baking powder
1 beaten egg
125 mL (1/2 cup) milk
125 mL (1/2 cup) honey
60 mL (1/4 cup) oil

Additions
Again, add whatever combinations of fruit, nuts, seeds, spices and flavourings you like.

Method
Preheat oven to 400 Fahrenheit.
Sift flour. Combine dry ingredients in a bowl.
Combine wet ingredients in a second bowl.
Add wet ingredients all at once to dry ingredients. Mix to combine. (Batter should still be lumpy.)
Spray mini-muffin tins lightly with cooking spray, fill to nearly full with batter.
Bake for 10 to 12 minutes or until golden.
Makes 32 to 36 mini muffins.

Shop, cook, eat: St. Lawrence Market

This post is a few months overdue. The seed of this blog was germinating when we planned and executed this field trip and meal with David’s parents. I had the foresight to enlist David as official blog photographer that day.
It began with a Saturday morning trip to the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto and ended with a fabulous four-course dinner at our house. We had no set menu — with the exception of the first course, which was to be our own version of one David had enjoyed at a restaurant nearly a year before. Instead, we decided, we would be inspired by what we saw and plan our meal accordingly.
We spent a couple hours wandering through the market’s stalls, salivating over the fresh meats, fish and produce and sampling mustards and cheeses.
Here, in no specific order, is what we bought:
large loaf of French bread
.7 kg piece of black cod
.5 kg thick cut organic beef striploin
asparagus
crimini mushrooms
small eggplants
mini red potatoes
A well-stocked pantry, fridge, bar and herb garden, plus a quick stop at the grocery store for some cream cheese, offered everything else we needed for our four-course feast.
With the exception of dessert, all dishes were prepared without a recipe. So instructions are minimal, but offer enough detail, I hope, to provide inspiration to any home chef.
We served the first and second courses with an unoaked chardonnay — a nice match for the hollandaise and buttery black cod. The beef course demanded something big and red. We went with malbec.

First course: Asparagus crostini
1. Make hollandaise sauce.
After much patient instruction from my sister chef, David now makes a killer hollandaise. We like ours with a little hot sauce and lots of fresh squeezed lemon juice. He made the hollandaise, while I prepped the crostini and vegetables.
2. Add some butter and a little oil to a hot pan. Saute sliced crimini mushrooms until brown. Add asparagus (four spears per person) and cook until tendercrisp.
3. Cut thick slices of French bread (not baguette, bread) on the diagonal. Lightly toast in 350 Fahrenheit oven.
4. To assemble, place one slice of bread on plate, arrange mushrooms and asparagus spears on bread. Top with hollandaise. Serve immediately.

Asparaugus crostini

Second course: Grilled black cod and eggplant
1. Marinate cod for about an hour in a citrus marinade. I used lemon juice and lemon and orange zest, as well as minced chives, olive oil, salt and pepper.
Cook on oiled grill. Black cod looks lovely when it is grilled; the layers of flesh separate in a very attractive way.
2. Cut eggplant in half. Sprinkle cut side with salt and let rest for an hour. This will draw out moisture and bitterness. Rinse.
Rub cut side with olive oil, finely minced garlic, salt and pepper. Grill, cut side down, until soft.
Sprinkle eggplant with freshly grated Parmesan. Broil until cheese is slightly browned.

Grilled black cod and eggplant.

Third course: Bourbon striploin with rosemary potatoes
1. Combine 80 mL (1/3 cup) each bourbon and soy sauce, 30 mL (2 tbsp) each brown sugar, red wine vinegar and olive oil, 2 mL (1/2 tsp) or more freshly cracked black pepper and 1 garlic clove, minced. (Add a small chopped onion if you like.)
Marinate beef for at least a few hours and as long as overnight for larger roasts.
Grill on hot barbecue to medium rare.
2. Meanwhile, boil remaining marinade on the stove until reduced to a thick sauce.
Allow meat to rest for several minutes before slicing against the grain. Serve slices topped with a bit of the sauce.
3. Microwave potatoes until just cooked. Season with salt and pepper. Toss with olive oil and chopped rosemary (dried or fresh). Grill until skins are slightly crisp.

Bourbon striploin with rosemary potatoes.

Fourth course: Bourbon pecan carrot cake
Carrot cake is my favourite dessert and I was waiting for an excuse to try out one of the recipes from the spring issue of the LCBO’s Food & Drink.
For the cake, I halved all the ingredients except the spices and made only two layers. For the icing, I omitted the vanilla and added some orange zest (which I grate when I eat oranges and keep in the freezer). The result was heavenly. But, for some reason, didn’t rate a photo. Blame all the wine perhaps.
Anyway, here is the original recipe, created by Monda Rosenberg.
Ingredients
1L (4 cups) grated carrot
175 mL (3/4 cup) golden raisins
75 mL  (1/3) bourbon, rum or orange juice (I used bourbon)
500 mL (2 cups) coarsely chopped pecans or almonds (I used pecans)
625 mL (2-1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
15 mL (1 tbsp) baking powder
5 mL (1 tsp) baking soda
5 mL (1 tsp) salt
7 mL (1-1/2) tsp cinnamon
5 mL (1 tsp) nutmeg
2 mL (1/2 tsp) allspice
250 mL (1 cup) vegetable oil
375 mL (1-1/2 cup) brown sugar
4 eggs
10 mL (2 tsp) vanilla
Icing
2 pkgs (250 g each) regular cream cheese, at room temperature
175 mL (3/4 cup) butter, at room temperature
30 mL (2 tbsp) bourbon, rum or orange juice (I used boubon)
5 mL  (1 tsp) vanilla
625 mL (2-1/2 cups) sifted icing sugar
Method
1. Preheat oven to 350°F (180°C). Spray or oil three 1.5-L (9-inch) round cake pans.
2. Grate carrots using a food processor. Measure out 1 L  (4 cups) and set aside. Plump up raisins by placing in a small microwave bowl and adding bourbon. Microwave on high 1½ minutes, stirring partway through. Bourbon should just start to boil. Set aside and stir occasionally. Chop nuts and toast in the oven for about 6 minutes, stirring partway through. Place flour in a large bowl. Sprinkle with baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice. Stir to blend, then make a well in the centre.
3. Combine oil, sugar, eggs and vanilla in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat on medium speed for 3 minutes. Scrape into well in flour mixture and stir with a spoon or spatula just until even in colour. Stir in carrots, followed by raisins and bourbon that hasn’t been absorbed. Sprinkle with nuts and just mix in. It will be very thick.
4. Divide batter between pans, adding about 550 mL (2-1/4 cups) to each. Spread evenly to pan sides. To remove air pockets, bang pans on counter 5 to 6 times. Bake until centres seem set when lightly tapped, from 30 to 35 minutes. Remove to a baking rack to cool. After about 15 minutes, turn cakes out of pans and cool completely on racks. It’s best to bake cakes a day ahead of icing and leave at room temperature overnight.
5. Cut cream cheese into chunks. Place butter in a bowl and beat with an electric mixer until very creamy. Add bourbon and vanilla. Reduce speed to low and beat in cream cheese, piece by piece. Beating too much will cause thinning. Add about a third of the icing sugar and beat on low until just mixed in. Scrape sides of bowl and beaters occasionally. Gradually add remaining sugar, beating just until smooth. If too thin, work in a little more sugar. Can be refrigerated for about an hour before using.
6. To assemble, place a cake, top-side down, on a platter. Lay the other 2, top-side up, on waxed paper. Brush with bourbon if you like. Spoon an equal amount of frosting on each. Spread over cakes, leaving a narrow border of cake around edge of cake on platter and on 1 other cake. Spread frosting right to the edge of the third cake. Stack cakes, placing the fully covered layer on top. Garnish with whole pecan halves. It’s best to refrigerate several hours or overnight before serving.
Make 12 wedges.