Today is Victoria Day, the final day in a long weekend that in Canada is the official herald of the summer to come. It’s the long weekend where people get together for barbecues and outdoor parties, where people open up their cottages and put their boats in the water. It’s the weekend where garden enthusiasts can finally plant all those frost-fearing plants they’ve been keeping inside. It’s a weekend to spend enjoying fresh air and the company of friends.
The Pie is out of town at a tournament this weekend and so I had all sorts of social events planned to keep me from getting lonely and bored by myself. At the eleventh hour, however, literally as I was walking out the door on Friday night to the first of my social engagements, I realized I had picked up a stomach bug from one of my coworkers (despite our best efforts) and I had to cancel everything. While it was a mild case (I’m mostly fine now), I knew it was infectious and one of my events was a brunch with Gen. Zod, a pregnant Atlas, and my immunocompromised mother. So that was a no-go.
But I’d already bought all the food for it, and so in the moments when I wasn’t feeling terrible, I decided to make smaller amounts of my recipes for the brunch anyway, just to keep myself from going stir crazy with only Gren for company. This one from Sweet Treats & More is ridiculously easy and can be scaled for events of any size. They make great finger food for brunch, lunch, or even dinner. Start by setting your oven to broil and haul out a broiling pan or a baking sheet with a cooling rack set in it.
Then set to and halve, pit, and peel however many ripe avocados you want to use.
Cut those up into as close to cubes as you can get. Sprinkle them with salt and pepper. I feel like a small gob of goat cheese, brie, or a pecan wouldn’t go amiss tucked into the little indentation left by the pit.
Then grab a slice of turkey bacon (you can use whatever bacon you want for this of course) for each cube of avocado and wrap it up. Jab a toothpick into it to keep it shut. Wouldn’t want that juicy avocado to escape.
Lay the little packages on your pan and shove them in the oven.
I think it depends on how high your rack is and how hot your broiler is because the original recipe called for 10-15 minutes and mine took 8 minutes before they were a little on the charred side. So keep an eye on them.
I know: after overindulging during the holidays, the last thing you want to think about is highly caloric treats. January is time for moderation and abstinence.
We all of us know that this is complete hooey.
Even Gren knows it’s bull pucky. And he’s a DOG.
January, and its evil-yet-slightly-shorter twin, February, are both miserable. Have you looked outside recently? Blech. Don’t come to Canada in January or February. If you do I don’t think you’ll stay long.
How do we survive this gray misery? SUGAR. And lots of it. Personally, I need the calories to wade through waist-deep snow while my dolphin-corgi hybrid takes his evening constitutional.
So this week I will be featuring three easy treats that are each decadent in their own ways. These will help you get through the worst of the winter. And if you have the fortitude to resist them, then keep the recipes on hand for the next time the indulgences of the holidays roll around.
Start by buttering a 10″ x 15″ rimmed baking sheet. Set that aside.
Preheat your oven to 350°F and plop 2 cups pecan halves (or pecan pieces) on a baking sheet. Not the buttered one. You’ll notice here I am using hazelnuts. I was out of pecans. But pretend they’re pecans. Stick those in the oven and toast them, stirring once or twice, for about 8-10 minutes.
Allow them to cool completely and then chop them roughly (saves you effort if you use pecan pieces instead). Chop half of those up to fine little pieces, and set both the roughly chopped and finely chopped pecans aside.
In a large saucepan (because remember, sugar expands quite a bit when it boils), mix together 3 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/2 cups butter, 1 teaspoon salt, and 3/4 cup water.
Heat on medium until the butter is all melted, then increase the heat to medium-high and, stirring occasionally, let that mixture come up to 310°F on a candy thermometer.
Should take about 20 minutes or so.
Remove from the heat and carefully stir in 1 tablespoon vanilla extract (be careful, this is where it gets fizzy) and the finely chopped half of your pecans.
Carefully pour your hot toffee into a rimmed baking sheet and let it cool until it’s fully set, about 30 minutes.
If you want your toffee pieces to come out even, you can score the toffee with a sharp knife after about 10 minutes of setting. Make sure to wipe off your knife with warm water after each slice for easier cutting.
While that’s cooling, chop up 12 ounces of chocolate (the darker the better) and melt it over a double boiler or heat safe bowl suspended over a pot of simmering water.
Remove that from the heat and allow to cool a little bit (so it’s not molten) before pouring it over your set toffee. Smooth the chocolate down with a knife or offset spatula (honestly, it’s a handy item you won’t use often but when you use it, it will rock your cooking experience). Sprinkle the chocolate with your roughly chopped pecans and let it sit for about 20 minutes, until the chocolate has cooled but is still in a squishy state.
Then sprinkle THAT with about 2 teaspoons fleur de sel (or coarse sea salt, if that’s what you’ve got).
Chill the pan for about an hour, until it’s all set and lovely, then twist the pan to release the toffee and cut or break into pieces. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 weeks or in the fridge for about a month.
♪ Secret AGENT Tarts, Secret AGENT Tarts, he’s givin’ you a number, and takin’ AWAY your name … ♫
Baking is much more exciting if your recipes come from a spy, like this one did.
I have a friend who works for CSIS, which is the Canadian equivalent of the CIA (likewise, our RCMP is the FBI). And like all good spies, he is multi-talented, and thus has a very good recipe for butter pecan tarts. Or butter tarts. Or raisin tarts. Or whatever you call them. I call them SPY TARTS. I had to call him at work to get this recipe. Espionage was involved.
(I also applied to work at CSIS a few years ago, and after a very entertaining 3-hour interview, both CSIS and I decided we wouldn’t be a good fit, though I’m sure they kept that file on me somewhere. I must be too awesome to be a spy.)
So here is your top-secret recipe. It’s top secret because it’s super easy.
At some point I will expand my repertoire to include pastry, but at the moment you will just have to be satisfied with pre-made Tenderflake tartlet shells. This recipe makes 12 3″ tarts.
Preheat your oven to 425°F.
Gather together the following:
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup corn syrup
1/4 cup shortening
1 teaspoon vanilla
3/4 cup raisins
Divide the raisins evenly among the 12 pre-made shells and place them on a baking sheet.
Mix all the other ingredients together in a bowl.
Fill each shell 3/4 full.
If you have mixture left over do not be tempted to overfill your cups, as they will bubble and get everywhere.
Bake on the bottom rack of your oven for 12-15 minutes. Be careful not to overbake. Of course if you underbake then they will stay runny.
Remove from oven. They should be all foamy and bubbling and the crust should be a nice brown. Place a pecan half on top of each tart and allow to cool and solidify. The reason I put the pecans on after they are cooked is I find that the pecans tend to burn if you do it before cooking.
When I’m arriving at an interview for my research, I like to bring the participant a little something that I made as a thanks for their time. It’s kind of a rule for me. I made the following recipe for a family I interviewed a couple of weekends ago and I was disappointed at how it turned out — I’d appreciate your views on what you think went wrong and how we could make this a super awesome dessert. In light of this being Groundhog Day, I would say this recipe saw its shadow and needs a do-over.
Using your handy-dandy pastry blender (or two knives), cut 6 tablespoons cold butter into the mixture until it resembles coarse crumbs.
One tablespoon at a time, sprinkle 3 tablespoons ice water over the mixture, mixing lightly after each addition. The dough should be just moist enough to hold together at this point.
I found I had to add more water in order to get the dough to stick together, probably about double the amount.
Press the dough evenly into your prepared pan.
Bake it in your oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until golden brown, then place on a rack to cool completely. When I pulled mine out of the oven it was bubbling with butter and not golden at all. I think I would perhaps use less butter. Suggestions?
For the Filling:
In a saucepan over high heat, melt together 3 tablespoons butter, 1/3 cup light corn syrup, 1 1/3 cups packed brown sugar, 1/2 cup whipping cream, and 1 teaspoon white vinegar. Bring the goo to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly, for about 5 minutes.
Remove from the heat and stir in 1 teaspoon vanilla until the bubbling stops (bet you didn’t know it would bubble when you added vanilla, did you?)
Pour the filling over the cooled base (I let the filling cool a bit first, as it was rather molten).
Sprinkle the top with 3/4 cup toasted pecans and set aside to cool.
For the Topping:
In a double boiler or bowl set over a pot of simmering water, melt 3 oz semi-sweet chocolate and stir until smooth. Let cool very slightly and then drizzle over the pecans. Chill until the chocolate is set.
Using the foil as a handle, transfer your chilled squares to a cutting board and cut into squares. My problem here? The darned caramel didn’t set. It got thicker, sure, but still remained steadfastly liquid. What did I do wrong?
The bottom was pretty rubbery, too, which made eating this sweet confection impossible without a jackhammer, but it is definitely worth trying again, because while it didn’t work out the way I had anticipated, at least it wasn’t floor pizza.
At the end of October I dog-sat for one of my neighbours, KDB. She has two Scottie dogs, Hamish and Flora.
I wanted to leave her something nice to come home to, and to take advantage of the fun that is her kitchen. It’s blue. All of it. And whatever isn’t blue tends to have the image of a Scottie on it.
Kristopf came over to help me make cookies (but in reality to use my computer).This is a recipe that I kind of invented myself, adapted from the basic Tollhouse Chocolate Chip Cookie recipe. I hope you like it.
Preheat your oven to 375°F.
Soften 2 cups butter and plop it in a large bowl.Cream it together with 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar and 1 1/2 cups brown sugar.Crack 4 eggs into a bowl and whisk them silly.
Add the eggs to the butter stuff and mix well.
In a separate bowl, mix together 4 1/2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon baking soda, and 6 to 8 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa. Add this to the goo mixture a little at a time and stir well.
Now, stirring the whole time (you may need to use your hands at this point as the dough gets hard to handle), add in 2 1/2 cups pecan pieces, 2 cups butterscotch chips, and 2 cups chocolate chips.Drop spoonfuls of the dough on ungreased baking sheets.
Bake for 9 to 11 minutes, rotating halfway through for even baking. After removing them from the oven, leave the cookies on the sheets for a few minutes, then remove them to a rack to cool completely.
The Pie doesn’t particularly like Brussels sprouts, but the rest of us adore them. To find a compromise this past Thanksgiving I pulled inspiration from a number of different recipes, and also from a salad I’d eaten at The Black Tomato two nights before, and came up with something that we all loved.
I’m not going to give you measurements for this recipe, because to be honest I didn’t measure anything, just kind of threw it in when the inspiration struck me. Besides, everyone has their own preferences as to amounts and proportions in a salad. Just estimate and you’ll be fine. This version served ten people with tons of leftovers.
First, you cut up your Brussels sprouts. We tried them first with a mandolin, but then found it was easier just to slice them thinly with a stupid sharp knife. Cut off the tough stem part at the bottom and discard any bruised or torn outer leaves, then carefully shave those suckers down.We ended up with a medium-sized bowl full of bits of mini-cabbage.Because this was sort of a do-at-the-last-second kind of salad, and because Thanksgiving at the last second gets a little hectic as things come out of the oven and the turkey needs to be carved, I wanted to set up a mise en place for this so everything would be ready to go when I needed it. Accordingly, I prepared the rest of my ingredients ahead of time.
Three finely chopped green onions.
Two finely sliced shallots.
Two handfuls dried, sweetened cranberries.
A handful each finely chopped radicchio and Boston lettuce.
Goat cheese, or chèvre.
Pecans, ground in my food processor.
Pecan pieces, for garnish.
Mix together the goat cheese, cranberries, and ground pecans.
Set that aside for now.
In a large frying pan or skillet melt about a third of a cup of butter at medium heat. Toss in your green onions and shallots and sauté for a few minutes until softened.
Chuck in your massive amounts of Brussels sprouts and stir them around until they’re thoroughly coated in butter and start to wilt.
Add in the raddichio and the Boston lettuce and stir to mix. Drizzle gently with olive oil, balsamic vinegar, and a healthy dash of real maple syrup. Toss to coat and remove from heat.
This recipe comes from my favourite book, Baked: New Frontiers in Baking. In this particular book, the authors call their bar the Baked Bar, after their establishment in New York, but my cousin’s wife told me that her grandmother used to make her what she called Hello Dolly Bars. I call them Gooey Bars, because that’s what they truly are. Many of the wedding guests described them as “life-altering experiences”, but I’ll leave you to determine that for yourself.
The ingredients are simple, but the crust is a little fussy, so the recipe from start to finish takes quite a while.
Preheat your oven to 300°F.
Line a 9 x 13″ pan with aluminum foil and butter it. The foil makes it much easier to remove everything from the pan after you’ve baked it.
Put a piece of parchment on a baking sheet and spread 2 cups shredded coconut across it. Bake for 5 or so minutes until the coconut begins to turn golden brown. Toss the coconut and bake for another 3 minutes or so.
Toss the coconut in a bowl with 2 1/2 cups graham cracker crumbs.
Melt 1 cup butter and pour it in.
Mix it all up with your hands or a fork, and then use your hands to press the crust mixture into the pan. Smooth the surface and level it.
Refrigerate the crust for 15 minutes, then bake for 10 minutes, or until golden brown. Transfer to a wire rack and let the crust cool completely.
Now for the rest.
Raise the oven temperature to 325°F.
Spread 1 1/3 cups pecans over a sheet pan and toast them for a little while until brown.
Spread those over the bottom of the cooled crust and add 1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips as well.
Coarsely chop up about 9 oz white baking chocolate (that’s 9 squares).
Spread those on top, as well as 3/4 cup butterscotch chips.
The fun part here is when you pour two cans of sweetened condensed milk over top the whole thing. Just drizzle that on there.
Shake the pan gently to evenly distribute the milk. Of course, if you have really thick milk you might want to use a spatula to spread it out.
Bake the whole thing for 30-40 minutes, making sure to rotate the pan every ten minutes. When it’s all brown and bubbly it’s all done. Transfer it to a wire rack and let it cool completely before cutting into squares and serving.
Wrap tightly in plastic wrap and keep them in the fridge for up to four days.
The Pie and I were married on 22 August 2009. We wanted to do our wedding on the cheap, because we are stone broke, and we also wanted to give our guests a little taste of our personality. With that in mind, we turned down my parents’ repeated offers to make fruitcakes (‘but it’s a traditional Scottish wedding cake’) and decided to make cupcakes instead of buying a tiered and costly confection.
Which flavours were we to pick? The choices were almost endless and we didn’t know where to begin. My mother gave me Cupcake Heaven by Susannah Blake as a Christmas present, and we decided to start there. With one exception, all the recipes we tried are from there.
I chose a panel of a dozen people at work to help us to test our cupcakes, and every one of them looked forward to Cupcake Friday. By the time I was finished the experiment (which ran from the beginning of March to the end of June 2009), my panel had doubled in size and I was a very popular lady at work.
A crucial piece of machinery without which I would have gone MAD is the Kitchenaid stand mixer. I highly recommend it to anyone and everyone who does a lot of baking. Also my camera, of course. I took a lot of pictures during this period. You can see the rest of them on my Flickr site here.
#1 Apple Cinnamon Sour Cream
These were extremely tasty but not particularly attractive, texture-wise. Aesthetically they weren’t much to go on either. The icing was also quite runny and very sticky, but also very good. The sour cream mixed with the lemon and the icing sugar made a tangy topping. The Committee thought it would make a good brunch baked good.
One thing to note about these is that I had to re-cup the cupcakes after they were baked, because the bottoms had burned a bit in my antiquated oven and I wanted to hide that. Fun fact: if you re-cup a cupcake, the cupcake will not stick to the paper cup anymore, as you can see in the photograph.
#2 Carrot Cardamom
I really like the word ‘cardamom.’ These ones turned out exactly like the picture in the book, which was gratifying, and they had a much smoother texture than the Apple Cinnamon, which was reassuring.
I’m not a huge fan of walnuts, however; they have a bitter after taste that I am not fond of – I much prefer pecans. The mascarpone icing, however, was incredible and there was an enormous amount of it. If these cupcake experiments taught me anything (and to quote one of the Committee members), ‘there is no such thing as too much icing.’
#3 Cherry and Marzipan Cupcakes
These little boogers were a spectacular failure on my part. The recipe involved putting half the batter into the cup, then sprinkling it with grated marzipan, then putting the other half of the dough on top. Silly me, I did all the bottom halves first, then all the marzipan, and by the time I got around to the tops, I had run out of batter.
In addition, I had to deal with runny icing and artificial cherries, and that’s never a good combination. Let us not forget as well that I had to face the inevitable comments at work that these strongly resembled boobs. So much for professionalism.
Overall, they were too sweet, and too much of a pain to make. Vetoed.
… then something magic happened …
… my oven exploded!
I’m totally serious. The Pie was making dinner one night and I heard this loud thrumming noise coming from the kitchen, accompanied by a yell that I should probably get in there. I ran in and saw bright white light coming from the oven window – element was arcing and sending off sparks. It was making the thrumming noise. We turned off the oven and got the hell out of there. Two days later my landlord bought us a new oven. It’s so low tech that it has no interior light and you have to shine a flashlight in to see if your stuff is done, but it works really well, I will give it that.
#4 Creamy Coconut Lime
It was from this new oven that a new generation of cupcake was born. I could now actually follow the recipe when it came to temperature and cooking time. Nothing burned, or exploded. It was inspiring, actually. The first experiment to come out of the new oven, or ‘tailgate special’ as I like to refer to it, was this perfect confection. It was unanimously voted by the Committee as the perfect cupcake for a wedding. Nothing I made after this counted for much in their opinions. I was, however, undaunted, and continued on with my experiments. I couldn’t stop now – things were just getting good.
#5 Orange Poppyseed with Mascarpone Icing
In these, I substituted canned mandarin slices for regular orange segments. Other than the fact that I am truly lazy and did not want to segment several oranges, the canned pieces meant that my cupcakes would be uniform and also that the quality of the fruit would be good. Living in Newfoundland, especially during the winter, means that produce quality is always a guessing game.
These cakes were popular with those who liked poppyseeds. I liked them, but the Pie was not a huge fan.
As you can see, I was really getting into my groove here. My photographic cupcake record had turned more artistic now that my appliances were cooperating.
#6 Blueberry and Lemon with Cornmeal
These little beauties contained fresh Newfoundland blueberries stuck right into the batter, and were made with cornmeal, which made the batter a sunshiny yellow but which created a texture many were not expecting.
I thought they were great but most people were unconvinced. In any case, I had a lot of fun with my new zester, creating and photographing my confections.
Martha Stewart eat your heart out:
#7 Maple and Pecan
I had a lot of fun making these – and burned myself severely in the process. They were one of my favourite cupcakes, taste-wise, but many people found the hard caramelized sugar too sharp or tough to bite into, the Pie included, so they were eventually scrapped.
Playing with melted sugar is a lot of fun. If I ever made these again, however, I would let the sugar cool a bit more before pouring it, to keep the fluid from spreading too much – I think that was my major failing here.
#8 Bittersweet Chocolate Wedding Cupcakes
I ended up renaming these bad beauties Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse, because that’s pretty much what they tasted like, and that’s pretty much all the ‘icing’ really was: hot whipping cream poured over dark and bittersweet chocolate and then whipped into a light foam. They are truly divine. The batter itself was a little bland, however, so I thought I could improve somewhat.
You can see at this time that spring was coming, and my seedlings were on the sprout. But spring comes late to Newfoundland, and we had a while yet to wait.
#9 Gingerbread Cupcakes with Lemon Icing
I can pretty much guarantee that I will never make these again. I have never been so disappointed with myself. I didn’t want to serve them to the Committee, and some Committee members refused to even finish them. They were dry and tasteless and the crystallized ginger on top was too strong. It was supposed to be stem ginger in syrup but this being Newfoundland I couldn’t find any.
I had to redeem myself.
#10 Marble Cupcakes
When these were finished they looked nothing like the photograph but boy were they tasty. Inside was a chocolate-vanilla swirl cake that really wasn’t visible unless there was no icing but which was nice and moist and light.
The icing was cream cheese mixed with cream and icing sugar. You can’t really top that, but of course that would mean leaving out the caramel.
I used Smucker’s caramel ice cream topping, but had I been thinking I would have used real dulce de leche, because it would have held its shape better and not oozed everywhere. These cupcakes certainly entailed sticky fingers.
#11 Coffee and Walnut Cupcakes with Ricotta Icing
The Pie and I wanted to experiment with a few lower-fat options, and this was one of them, containing no butter at all, and of course using ricotta cheese instead of cream cheese for icing.
They turned out really well but weren’t quite what we were looking for.
#12 Chocolate Fireworks
These were meant to be served with lit sparklers in them, but I wasn’t sure how I would get them into the office.
I settled for the little silver balls instead. Did you know they are called ‘dragees’?
The icing was rather unimaginative and runny, but the batter had some orange in it that kept in moist and gave it a nice tart tang.
#13 Raspberry Trifle
Unlucky number 13. We were drawing to the close of our experiment here, with only three more recipes to try, and I was pretty tired of making cupcakes at this time. It seemed every week I was adding someone new to the Cupcake Committee email distribution list.
I made these while watching Detroit lose to Pittsburgh in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. I was cheering for the Red Wings (my beloved Senators didn’t even make the post-season) because I hate Crosby, but alas, I was out of luck.
This cake was really good, though, because it was chock-full of raspberries. I thought the custardy topping could have had more flavour, but that might have had something to do with me failing at making custard.
#14 Strawberry Vanilla Cheesecake
I left the picture of this one small because it’s blurry. It was late, I was tired, and these were such a hassle that I forgot to take a picture until super late at night.
The recipe called for slicing off the top of the cupcake so the cream cheese topping would set, smooth and flat, like a real cheesecake. I cut off the tops, which was a pain, considering I then had to re-cup the cakes, and then topped them. And discovered that the topping wasn’t going to lie smooth and flat anyway.
There was some swearing.
In the end, these were one of my favourites: a fine vanilla cake with vanilla cream-cheesy ‘icing’ and sliced strawberries on top. The fanning of the berry was my idea, as the berries I got weren’t of the quality that they would stand up on their own, like they were in the book.
#15 Gluten-Free Chocolate Cheesecake
Another cheesecake-y recipe that didn’t turn out as well as I’d hoped. The Pie’s grandmother is a celiac, as is one of my former coworkers, and both of them were coming to the wedding. I didn’t want them to feel excluded from the cake part of the festivities, so I experimented with a gluten-free recipe.
It was an all right cupcake, but it wasn’t light or fluffy, the potato flour I used made the texture a little grainy, and, all in all, it was rather bland.
#16 Coconut Cream
This was my final cupcake, and it wasn’t really an experiment.
One of the people in the Cupcake Committee had been talking about the Barefoot Contessa’s Coconut and Cream cupcakes for a while so as a final treat I decided to make them. You can get the recipe from the Food Network here.
The cupcakes were huge, and I knew I wasn’t going to make them for the wedding – they were pretty time-consuming. But everyone on the Committee had been talking about that other coconut recipe for ages, so I thought I would end it with an echo of the earlier recipe.
They were fabulous and if you ate more than one you felt ill. We had wayyy too many leftovers and I think we ate them for three weeks straight. Or at least it felt like that. They were good though. I recommend giving them a shot.
And that’s it. Sixteen cupcakes in seventeen weeks.
Which ones did we eventually choose: Strawberry Vanilla Cheesecake, Fireworks (but with the icing from the Bittersweet Chocolate Mousse), and the Raspberry Trifle (but with a lemon cream cheese icing instead of the custard. They were a hit.