Archives for August 2007

Showers of Happiness–and Cake.

Is it just me, or are people hooking up for a walk down the aisle all over the place?
This summer has been a furry of engagement parties and wedding showers as an astonishing seven couples in our circle of friends are planning to get hitched in the near future (with another two couples in negotiations-rumor has it). To say that love is in the air almost doesn’t cut it- we’re thinking by now that there must be something in the water.

Anyway, we are very excited for all our friends (Danny and I are the first to heartily recommend marriage) and I was thrilled to be asked to decorate a cake for a wedding shower I attended last weekend for the lovely Christina–as if I need an excuse to play with sugar.

I had had the idea for a design of a dress where the skirt was sugared rose petals, but as any baker knows, having an idea and executing an idea are two very different things. While I found the sugaring of the petals to be excruciatingly long and tedious, I was happy with the results–and so was the bride, which is most important, after all.

I used a vanilla butter cream to ice the whole cake. I sugared rose petals for the skirt of the dress and piped in the bodice with a pastry bag and tip. Pink geraniums were sugared as well and decorated three corners of the cake.

During the process of decorating this cake, I found out that I still despise working with a pastry bag, and that attempting to get the icing really smooth still drives me nuts!However, if I must work with frosting, this recipe is without a doubt my favorite. Plenty of butter gives it a fluffy texture and a vanilla bean adds decadent taste and pretty specks throughout.

Adapted from Martha Stewart:

Swiss Meringue Vanilla Buttercream

4 large egg whites
1 1/4 cups sugar
1 1/2 cups unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into tablespoons
1 vanilla bean, split or 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

In the heatproof bowl of an electric mixer set over a saucepan of simmering water, combine the egg whites and sugar. Cook, whisking constantly, until the sugar is dissolved and the mixture is warm to the touch.
Attach the bowl to the mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the egg whites on high speed until stiff peaks form. Continue beating until the mixture if fluffy and cooled, about 6 minutes.
Switch to the paddle attachment. With the mixer on medium-low speed, add the butter several tablespoons at a time, beating well after each addition. (If frosting appears to have separated after all the butter has been added, beat on medium-high speed until smooth again.) With the tip of a knife, scrape seeds from vanilla pod and add to icing. Beat on low speed to eliminate any air bubbles. Stir until smooth.
Frosting is now ready to use or it may be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to three days. Before using, bring to room temperature.

Top Ten Reasons Why I am Dreading the Approaching Autumn

Some of my favorite summer produce in its prime

1. The inevitable return to routine. Every home has one in the fall, be it structured around school, playgroups, extra curricular activities or social commitments. Somehow we have managed to drift through summer with no real commitments, no schedules and a delicious spontaneity from day to day, but that is soon coming to an end. The phrase “It’s a school night” starts popping up when we have friends over, usually when I am ready to start another round of Canasta or open a new bottle of wine. That sure gets annoying fast.

2. The arrival of Christmas paraphernalia at Costco. Oh, it’s there, all right. I now have to brace myself for the unavoidable onslaught of Christmas propaganda everywhere.

3. Noticing my garden shrivel up, fade away and go to seed before my very eyes. My parsley patch is three feet high and has flowers on it as if to say “I’ve produced enough, thank you, I am now going to flower and die.”

The return to weekly music practices. Now while I do enjoy singing in a local church choir, I find September a tad early to begin rehearsing for the Christmas concert. Another four months of this and I’ll be able to perform sleepwalking. Wait a minute, I’ve been so tired lately from the pregnancy, sleepwalking isn’t far off.

It’s the end of the feast of summer festivals in Montreal with nothing but famine ahead. The major festivities drift away with the last of the hot air balloons in Saint Jean-sur-Richelieu, and not many others come up on my radar until the High Lights Festival in February.

My birthday is in the fall and I am starting to dread getting a year older now that I am reaching the end of my ‘tweens’.

7. The closing of La Ronde. I’m an adrenaline junkie, and even though I can’t go on the rides now that I am pregnant, there is something about seeing the motionless amusement park as I drive over the Jacques Cartier Bridge that seems to signal the end of summer fun.

8. The return of hockey. Now, I have to be very careful what I say here as certain members of my household are avid Habs fans. It’s not that I have anything against hockey, it’s just that perhaps there are some Saturday nights from October through May that I might want to do something other than watch the game, have a one-sided conversation with my husband, or receive a highly-distracted and sporadic back rub.

9. Need I mention approaching cool weather? As I write, I am wearing pants, a sweater, socks, and have a blanket on my lap and I am thinking the pretty sun dress I was planning to wear to tomorrow’s BBQ just isn’t going to be warm enough. The evenings are getting chillier and it’s not hard to imagine the eminent arrival of snow.

10. Probably the thing I dread most about the coming autumn is saying goodbye to gorgeous summer produce; watching the baskets of sweet strawberries get replaced by giant heads of cabbage and leeks the size of my arm. Then there are those annoying people who are falling over themselves to go apple picking as if they haven’t eaten an apple all year long. Although there are days when I can muster it, it’s hard to get excited about the arrival of the common apple in the fall, while all summer I have kept no less than ten kinds of fresh fruit and berries in my fridge and now have to say au revoir to the likes of watermelon, blueberries, strawberries, cherries, honeydew and so on…Goodbye, that is, if I keep any sort of grocery budget and I have any sort of palate as the prices jump and the flavor plummets come Labor Day weekend. Sure I love the fall vegetable line-up as much as then next chef, but when my local market is selling 10 lbs of beets for $2.99 and asparagus for $4.99/lb, it’s no secret that the fall veggies just aren’t as glamorous as the summer varieties. And who doesn’t love glam?!

All Cravings Start With Chocolate

Chocolate Nemesis with Raspberries
“So where did these cravings come from? I concluded it’s the baby ordering in. Prenatal takeout. Even without ever being in a restaurant, fetuses develop remarkably discerning palates, and they are not shy about demanding what they want. If they get a hankering, they just pick up the umbilical cord and call. ‘You know what would taste good right now? A cheeseburger, large fries, and a vanilla shake. And if you could, hurry it up, because I’m supposed to grow a lung in a half hour.’”
Paul Reiser, ‘Babyhood’ (1997)
I don’t know if what I am experiencing can be classified as pregnancy cravings, but it seems I am reaching for sweets a lot more often than usual. For sure last night’s ricotta cheesecake with rhubarb-raspberry compote was created for reasons other than the need to thin my rhubarb patch. Chocolate bundt cake the day before really was a good excuse to try my new pans; and obviously Sunday’s espresso ice cream was to help combat the heat….but this deep dark flour-less chocolate cake? Well, it must have been an order placed directly from the baby.

Once again I turned to the River Cafe Cookbook for this decadent chocolate cake. Once you try this you will never make another chocolate cake recipe. While it only calls for four ingredients, it is essential to use the very best chocolate possible. Note that this is a very large recipe. I had some leftover batter and made these sweet heart-shaped individual cakes. Why not? I’ve told you before, every day is Valentine’s in this house!

Chocolate NemesisServes 10-12675g (1.1/2 lbs) bitter-sweet chocolate, broken into small pieces
10 whole eggs
575 g sugar
450g unsalted butter, softenedPreheat the oven to 325F. Line a 12×2 inch cake pan with greaseproof paper, than grease and flour it.
Beat the eggs with a third of the sugar until the volume quadruples-this will take at least 10 minutes in an electric mixer.Heat the remaining sugar in a small pan with 250 ml (8 fl oz) water until the sugar has completely dissolved to a syrup.Place the chocolate and butter in the hot syrup and stir to combine until the chocolate melts and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and cool slightly.
Add warm chocolate mixture to the eggs and continue to beat, more gently, until completely combined- about 20 seconds, no more.Pour into the cake tin and place in baine-marie of hot water. It is essential, for the cake to cook evenly, that the water comes up to the rim of the tin. Bake in the oven for 30 minutes or until set. Leave to cool in the tin before turning out.
When you are ready to serve the cake, loosen around the edges of the pan with a hot knife. Place the pan on a hot stove burner for 45 seconds or so to warm the bottom. Place a plate on top and invert the pan. Tap bottom gently with the butt of a knife and the cake should drop. Remove pan, peel back parchment, and voila! No frosting needed.
Serve with a few fresh berries.

Lasting Impressions

Allow me to share a few of the images I still have stuck in my head from my visit home to British Columbia…

Left to right from the top:

  1. My parents, at their 35th wedding anniversary party
  2. Khaki Campbell ducks
  3. Me at my usual post: the kitchen
  4. Sweet William flowers showcased by my Dad’s artwork
  5. Ross Lake and Rocher de Boule Mountain
  6. Wild Saskatoon berries
  7. Unidentified wild mushroom
  8. My mother’s unrivaled duck dinner
  9. Baby beets
  10. Fresh picked Bolete mushroom
  11. Niece, Lyra, with wild strawberries
  12. Hudson Bay Mountain at dusk
  13. Mama duck with day-old babies
  14. Noah doing artwork along the banks of the Kispiox River
  15. Catching up over some dessert
  16. Wild strawberry dessert with Fireweed flowers in the background

One Zucchini, Two Zucchini, Three Zuccini, Four.

Yellow Zucchini Soup with Parmesan and Basil

It’s good to be home, or at the very least, it is good not to be traveling across Canada with a toddler. While it was difficult enough to leave beautiful British Columbia and my family, the flights home did very little to help boost my spirits.
Oh, to the Air Canada flight attendant who spilled hot coffee down the back of my neck and onto my (finally) sleeping child: MERCI.

That was one flight I have never been happier to exit.
But, we made it back safe and sound. My garden was not there to greet me upon my return; instead there was a mighty jungle that I hardly recognized. Three weeks of varied rain and hot sun had helped most plants to double in size…and the weeds were not far behind. I immediately harvested nearly a dozen foot-long zucchinis. I laid them all out on my lawn while Noah danced around happily saying “Nee! Nee!” (his word for zucchini) as they are his favorite vegetable.They were massive! I had my doubts as to how tasty they would be, but they were beautiful and have been featured in several dishes so far such as Chocolate Zucchini Bread, Zucchini Gratine with Cherry tomatoes and Gruyere, and of course, beautiful soup.

I’ve been delving into my copy of the River Cafe Cookbook and loving every recipe. It’s such a fantastic interpretation of Italian cooking and I dig how there is minimal focus on pasta. (Sometimes pasta gets much more than it’s deserved fifteen minutes of fame in Italian cookbooks) This zucchini soup recipe comes from the fabulous River Cafe cookbook and it was perfect- even Noah liked it.
Zuppa di Zucchini1 kg zucchini, trimmed
25 ml olive oil
2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
500 ml chicken stock or water
140 ml double cream
1 small bunch basil, chopped
1 small bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
120 g Parmesan, gratedCut the zucchini into quarters, then into 1 inch pieces. Heat the oil in a heavy saucepan and cook the garlic and zucchini slowly for approximately 25 minutes until the zucchinis are brown and very soft. Add salt, pepper and the stock, and simmer for another few minutes. Remove from the stove.
Put three-quarters of the zucchini in a food processor and puree. Return to the pan, and add the cream, basil, parsley and Parmesan. Heat gently and serve.