Thursday, June 28, 2007

Maple Nut Fudge

Last night I made maple fudge in honor of Canada Day, which takes place every July 1. The holiday commemorates the establishment of the Canadian Confederation – the union of the provinces, colonies and territories of British North America on July 1, 1867. This marked the beginning of a new phase of Canadian independence which culminated in full sovereignty in 1982. It's important to note that Canada still recognizes Queen Elizabeth II as its Head of State (as she is in Australia, New Zealand, and many Caribbean and South Pacific islands).

While the maple leaf first appeared on the Canadian flag in 1965, it was a Canadian symbol as early as 1700. In 1996 the maple tree, which grows naturally in all ten Canadian provinces, was declared the national tree of Canada.

Well before European colonization, Native Canadians discovered the culinary properties of maple sap which is used to produce maple syrup. The sap is harvested by drilling a hole into the xylem of a maple tree. A mature sugar or black maple will produce 40 liters of sap which will be distilled into one liter of syrup. Canada produces 80% of the world’s maple syrup – approximately 30 million liters in 2005.

Makes 16-24 pieces (about 2 pounds)

2 cups real maple syrup (from Canada, of course)
1 cup dark brown sugar, packed
1 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons butter
pinch of salt
2/3 cup walnuts, chopped (optional)
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. Line an 8 x 8 inch pan with foil, wax or parchment paper. Generously grease with butter.
2. In a large pan bring maple syrup, sugar and cream to a boil over medium heat.
3. Continue to boil, without stirring, until the mixture reaches 240 F on a candy thermometer. The mixture will take a while to heat up, then will bubble vigorous for 20 or more minutes as water evaporates.
4. Remove from heat and add butter and salt. Do not mix. Let mixture cool to 105 F.
5. Add walnuts and vanilla and beat until the mixture thickens and loses its gloss.
6. Pour fudge into the prepared pan and cool to room temperature. Cut into 16 or 24 pieces. Refrigerate overnight.
This fudge is soft and should be stored wrapped in wax paper, in an airtight container in the fridge for up to two weeks. You can also freeze it for up to four months – thaw by leaving it in the fridge overnight.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Summer Trifle

While trifle is sometimes associated with Christmas, it also makes a lovely summer treat – the chilled, layered combination of sponge cake, fruit, custard and whipped cream is perfect in the heat. My mother’s trifle was a modern version ideal for the working woman – a combination of store-bought Swiss roll, jello, Bird’s Custard and canned fruit. This version uses fresh ingredients and more labor.

This is the second dessert this month inspired by Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. At one point protagonist Charles Ryder indulges in a Mavrodaphne trifle. Mavrodaphne (literally black laurel) is a sweet dessert wine from Greece. The trifle referenced in the book contains the Greek wine substituted for sweet sherry, the traditional alcohol used in trifle. Chef John Fothergill at the Spreadeagle Inn in Thame (a village near Oxford) was famous for his Mavrodaphne trifle.

Serves 8 to 10

1 recipe of English Custard (about 3 cups)
2/5 to 1/2 recipe Lemon Sponge Cake (about 3/4 pound)
1/2 cup raspberry jam
1/3 to 2/3 cup sweet sherry, port, sweet wine or fruit juice
1 to 1 1/2 pounds fresh strawberries, hulled and sliced
1 small banana, sliced
2 cups heavy cream
2 teaspoons rose water (optional)
3 tablespoons powdered sugar (optional)
chocolate shavings or other garnish

The above photos correspond to various stages of trifle preparation. I refer to them top to bottom as photos 1-5.

1. Prepare custard in advance and use at room temperature or chilled. Do not use warm custard.
2. Slice stale sponge cake into 3/4-inch cubes. Using raspberry jam, attach two cubes of cake together. (see photo 1)
3. In the trifle bowl, pour alcohol or juice over cake and toss until the liquid is absorbed.
4. Add sliced strawberries and bananas and toss again. (see photo 2)
5. Cover with a layer of custard, making sure it settles over the cake-fruit mixture. (see photo 3)
6. Whip cream, rose water and powdered sugar until stiff.
7. Top trifle with whipped cream and decorate with chocolate shavings. You may also garnish with toasted sliced almond, fruit, sprinkles or cocoa powder. (see photos 4 and 5)
8. Cover and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours before serving.

Be sure to use a clear glass bowl to show off the layers of your trifle.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

English Custard

I have early memories of standing beside my mother in the kitchen, impatiently watching her making custard. It would begin with milk and Bird’s Custard powder, and after what seemed like a very long time, it would magically transform into a thick yellow sauce. As a young child I would only eat custard on its own; as I grew older I learned to pair it with apple pie, mince pie and Marks & Spencer's Christmas pudding (incidentally, M&S no longer operates in Canada).

Technically custard refers to a mixture of egg yolks and milk thickened with heat. Years later I learned that Bird’s is not in fact custard at all – it is a cornstarch mixture created by Alfred Bird for his wife who was allergic to eggs.

Custard is used in a variety of desserts including crème brûlée and as a filling for tarts. While most custards are used in sweet dishes, quiche and frittata are examples of savory custards.

Unlike the English, the French never use thickeners for their custard (known as crème moulée); when thickeners are added they refer to it as crème pâtissière (pastry cream) which is used to fill éclairs, profiteroles and mille-feuille (Napoleans).

Making custard from scratch is much easier than you think. It requires some stirring, but by using a touch of cornstarch you can speed the process along significantly.

Serves 8 to 10 as a sauce

2 1/3 cups heavy cream
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1. In a large saucepan heat the cream until it is just about to simmer. You can tell it is ready when the surface begins to gently roll but no bubbles have yet formed.
2. While the cream is heating, in a large bowl use a balloon whisk to beat the egg yolks, sugar and cornstarch.
3. Carefully pour the hot cream, a little at a time, into the egg mixture and whisk vigorously.
4. Once mixed, immediately pour the mixture back into the saucepan. Heat to simmering and whisk constantly until the mixture is thick and creamy.
5. Remove from the heat, add vanilla extract, and stir thoroughly. Serve warm. Or pour the custard into bowl and cover the surface with plastic wrap to prevent a skin from forming. Store in the refrigerator.

Lemon Sponge Cake

Sponge cake, so called because of its airy structure reminiscent of a sponge, is a light cake perfectly served with berries (or other soft fruit) and whipped or ice cream. Unlike butter cakes, sponge contains no rising agents (such as baking powder, baking soda or yeast) and little or no butter. Whipped egg whites provide the height, which makes the cake especially susceptible to falling if the oven is opened during baking. The crumb can be described as a hybrid of pound cake and Angel Food cake.

While simple on its own, sponge cake often forms the foundation of ornate desserts such tiramisu, trifle, and Buche de Noel (Yule Log). This version incorporates lemon zest to add a citrus flavor and fresh scent.

Serves 12

8 eggs, separated
1 cup of granulated sugar
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cornstarch
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
zest of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon of lemon extract (optional)
powdered sugar (optional)

1. Line a 10-inch springform pan with wax paper or parchment paper. There is no need to grease the pan. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
2. Whip egg whites until frothy. Slowly add sugar and beat until glossy and stiff.
3. In another bowl, using the same hand mixer whip egg yolks, lemon zest and lemon extract until creamy, approximately 2 minutes.
4. Using a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg yolks into the egg whites. Be careful not to overmix which will deflate the egg whites.
5. Combine the flour and cornstarch and gently sift into the egg mixture. Fold in carefully, then fold in melted butter.
6. Transfer the batter to the pan. Spread evenly with the spatula and shake the pan to remove air bubbles.
7. Bake for 30 minutes or until a tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Once the cake has cooled, run a knife around the cake to detach it. To serve, slice with a serrated bread knife.

To serve, dust with powdered sugar and slice with a serrated bread knife.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Almond and Pistachio Baklava

When my parents first moved to Canada, my father worked for a man named Stavros, whose Greek mother entrusted us with her family baklava recipe. I grew up eating the pastry only on special occasions. My parents would throw huge dinner parties, which they would prepare for many days in advance. Baklava was a favorite, advance-prep dessert that they made in a deep baking sheet. Predictably, the guests would only eat half of the baklava, which left much syrup-dripping pastry for my indulgence.

Although many of us associate baklava with Greek cuisine, research shows it is most likely of Turkish or Assyrian origin, though both theories have been contested. The main ingredient is phyllo (named for the Greek word for “leaf”), a delicate dough that is thought to have originated in the Topkapi Palace of the Ottoman Empire. Whatever the origin, baklava is widely eaten in the Middle East and Central Asia.

This recipe draws from Stavros’ mother’s recipe, as well as the culinary skills of my friend Christina.
Makes 35 squares

1 3/4 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup honey
2 cinnamon sticks (optional)
peel of one orange (optional)
1 1/4 cups water
2 tablespoons rose water
3 cups almonds and pistachios, chopped
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon allspice
1/2 teaspoon cardamom
1 pound phyllo dough, thawed overnight in the refrigerator
1 cup unsalted butter (2 sticks)
whole cloves, for decoration

yogurt, for serving (optional)

1. Over medium heat dissolve 1 1/2 cups sugar and honey in water. Add cinnamon sticks and orange peel and bring to a boil. Remove from heat, add rose water and cool to room temperature.
2. Mix nuts, 1/4 cup sugar, cinnamon, allspice and cardamom. Set aside.
3. Melt the butter.
4. Remove phyllo dough from the fridge and place on cool surface. Cover with a wet cloth to keep moist. Work quickly as the phyllo dough dries out quickly.
5. Brush a 9 x 14 inch pan with butter. Make sure the butter reaches the corners of the pan.
6. Place one sheet of phyllo dough (fold in half if you have 14 x 18 pieces of phyllo) in the pan. Brush with butter. Repeat with five more sheets, brushing with butter after each sheet.
7. Sprinkle with half the nut mixture. Top with six more phyllo sheets, brushing with butter after each sheet.
8. Sprinkle with the remaining nut mixture. Top with the remaining phyllo sheets, brushing each with butter.
9. Chill the pan until the butter has hardened. This will make it easier to cut. Preheat oven to 325 F.
10. Cut baklava into diamonds, triangles or squares. Press one clove into the center of each piece.
11. Bake for 40-50 minutes until golden brown. While baking, strain the syrup to remove cinnamon sticks and orange peel.
12. Remove from the oven and pour syrup over hot baklava. Let stand for 4 hours or overnight. Serve with yogurt to balance the sweetness of the pastry.

Cypriot Salad

My friend Nadia is from Cyprus and she makes a lovely salad. When I accidentally referred to the salad as “Greek”, I was quickly corrected; apparently the Greeks don't use herbs in their salads. While this recipe has Mediterranean provenance, it is my favorite salad and I've made it for Navroz (Persian New Year), Christmas and many other occasions.

1 cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced
2 large tomatoes, chopped or 1 pint plum tomatoes cut in half lengthwise
1 head of Romaine lettuce, thinly sliced
1 bunch of cilantro, stalks removed, finely chopped
1 small red onion, sliced
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup black Kalamata olives
1/2 pound feta, crumbled by hand into large pieces

6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
juice of 1 lemon
2 teaspoons kosher salt or to taste
freshly ground black pepper to taste

1. Mix the first six salad ingredients with salad tongs. Make sure ingredients are dry before mixing – you may want to blot with a cloth or paper towel.
2. Place vinaigrette ingredients in an empty glass bottle. Screw on lid and shake well to emulsify. Pour over salad and mix well.
3. Decorate salad with onions, olives and feta cheese before serving. These are ingredients that many people don’t like, so if they are on top you can serve your picky guests from the bottom of the salad.

Nadia claims that unpitted olives have more flavor so she favors them to pitted ones. She also suggests using Greek olive oil.

This salad is great served with fresh pita or Greek flatbread.

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Eton Mess

My bookclub is reading Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh. It is a story about two Oxford undergraduates – the everyday Charles Ryder and the aristocratic Lord Sebastian Flyte. The latter attended Eton College, and the book makes many references to his experiences and friends there.

Eton is an independent, all boys schools founded by King Henry VI in 1440. As a teenager, I visited Eton with my family after touring nearby Windsor Castle. I can’t remember much about my experience there except the incredible sense of history I felt upon seeing the classrooms where future monarchs and Prime Ministers sat as young boys.

This week’s treat is a mixture of strawberries, cream and meringue traditionally served at Eton during the picnic that follows the annual prize giving ceremony on June 4 (the birthday of King George III (1760-1820), who was closely associated with the college). Eton mess is a popular summer dessert in England, but is virtually unknown in North America.
Look for another Brideshead Revisited-inspired dessert later this month.

Serves 10

1 pound fresh strawberries, hulled and quartered
2 tablespoons of granulated sugar
splash of port (optional)
2 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon of rose water (optional)
2 tablespoons powdered sugar (optional)
20 Treat a Week meringue cookies (or store bought)

1. Puree half the strawberries in a blender or food processor and mix with granulated sugar. If using port, add it to the remaining strawberries and set aside.
2. Whip heavy cream until it forms soft peaks. Add powdered sugar and rose water and continue whipping until stiffer peaks form.
3. Mix together 3/4 of the puree and 3/4 of the strawberry pieces. Fold in 3/4 of the whipped cream.
4. Serve the mixture in small bowls or wide-mouthed glasses (martini glasses are ideal). In each bowl place 2 meringues broken into large pieces. Cover with a scoop of the mixture, and top with a dollop of whipped cream, a bit of puree and a couple of strawberry pieces.
5. Serve immediately. If you wait too long the meringues will melt – there is no serious downside to this except you won’t be able to enjoy the crunchy texture. Another way to serve this is in a big glass bowl – layer meringues and the strawberry mixture. Cover the top with whipped cream, puree and scattered strawberry quarters.

Tuesday, June 5, 2007

Meringue Cookies

A number of people have mentioned that my recipes have too many ingredients and too many steps. So, I present you with a recipe that has only two key ingredients (and a few optional ones – I couldn’t resist) – egg whites and sugar.

They are a favorite during Passover (when many grains are off limits) and are often studded with chocolate chips or anything else that appeals. Meringues are also popular around Easter as they are egg-based and can be made in pastel shades with the addition of a few drops of food coloring.

Meringues are simply sweetened, frothy, baked egg whites. They are believed to have been created in 1720 by an Italian chef named Gaspraini in the Swiss municipality of Meiringen, hence the name. Meringues can be eaten on their own or used in various desserts including Eton Mess, pavlova and baked Alaska (all of which will appear on this blog some day).

Makes 20 cookies

3 egg whites
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)
1/2 to 1 teaspoon vanilla, almond, peppermint or other extract (optional)
few drops food coloring (optional)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
chocolate chips, chopped nuts, candies, desiccated coconut (optional)

1. Preheat oven to 225 F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper.
2. Separate eggs whites from yolks. Best to do this by cracking open the egg and allowing the whites to escape as you gently toss the yolk between egg shell halves. Save the yolks for crème brulee, tiramisu, hollandaise sauce or they can be frozen.
3. Using a high speed mixer, whip the egg whites until foamy. Add the cream of tartar which stiffens the eggs whites, as well as the extract and food coloring (if using). Beat until soft peaks forms.
4. Add the sugar a little at the time, and beat until very stiff peaks form.
5. If using, carefully fold in any other ingredients such as chocolate, fruit and nuts.
6. Using two tablespoons transfer dollops of meringue to baking sheets. For more uniform cookies put meringue into a pastry bag and pipe two-inch rounds.
7. Bake for 60 to 90 minutes until the meringues are hard but not brown. For even baking, rotate and switch baking sheets halfway through. Turn the oven off and leave the meringues inside for several hours or overnight. This will continue to dry them.