Sunday, July 26, 2015

I love brunch. I love going out to a restaurant on a weekend morning, and chatting over an Eggs Benedict or a Huevos Rancheros. I've enjoyed some wonderful brunches over the years, from Commander's Palace in New Orleans to Hell's Kitchen in Minneapolis, from Beauty and Essex in New York to Toronto's Farmhouse Tavern.

But as it happens, I get out to brunch far less often than I'd like. On Saturday mornings we’re running errands, and on Sunday mornings we’re in church. Going to brunch isn’t something that often works for us.

Which is why it’s great to find a cookbook that lets me enjoy it in my own house. Mildred Pierce Restaurant (which has since become Mildred’s Temple Restaurant) was named for the Joan Crawford movie Mildred Pierce. The cookbook that it inspired, Out To Brunch, has page after page of great recipes, including a few that are named for characters in the movie. (Remind you of anyone who has a series of recipes inspired by her favourite musicals?) 

I couldn’t resist trying one of those recipes, Mrs. Biederhof’s Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes, so named for the “other woman” in the movie, who might have cooked them to lure Mildred’s husband away. The pancakes were wonderful: tall, fluffy and stuffed with juicy berries, and served with extra berries on the side. I can’t speak for either Mrs. Biederhof or Mr. Pierce, but I was seduced by these delicious pancakes - and so was Mr. Pollock.

Mrs. Biederhof’s Blueberry Buttermilk Pancakes
(from Out to Brunch at Mildred Pierce Restaurant, by Donna Dooher and Claire Stubbs) 

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 tsp salt
2 1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
2 eggs
2 cups buttermilk
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 cup fresh blueberries, plus extra for serving
unsalted butter to grease the skillet
maple syrup, for serving

In a large bowl, sift together the flour, sugar, salt, baking powder and baking soda.

In a separate bowl, beat the eggs with the buttermilk and melted butter.

Using a spatula, combine the dry and wet ingredients to make a thick, lumpy batter, taking care not to overmix.

In a nonstick skillet, melt some butter over medium-high heat. Ladle 1/3 cup of batter into the hot skillet and sprinkle with blueberries. Take care not to overcrowd the skillet, since the pancakes will puff up as they cook.

When bubbles appear on the surface of the pancakes and the edges begin to brown, flip the pancakes and cook the other side. It should take about 2 to 3 minutes per side.

Serve with maple syrup and extra blueberries.

Byblos in my kitchen

Monday, July 20, 2015
I wanted to try this recipe as soon as I discovered it. Having enjoyed the fabulous Middle Eastern desserts at Toronto's Byblos restaurant, I couldn't wait to try something similar in my own kitchen. Everything about the recipe seemed perfect, from the sweetened labneh (a creamy, yogurt-like cheese) to the roasted fruit. And best of all, it didn't look like a lot of work. A handful of ingredients, and less than half an hour from beginning to end, most of that being time in the oven.

I might never have tried it, though, if it wasn't for the grappa. I didn't want to buy a whole bottle for this recipe. But the very next night, I was at a church dinner when one of my friends mentioned that a mutual friend mistook the grappa in her fridge for white wine. (Not a mistake you'd make beyond the first sip.) "We have so much grappa," she said, "I don't know what to do with it."

I offered to take some off her hands. We were both happy. And now it would be a cinch getting the rest of the ingredients!

Perhaps not.

The labneh was the next barrier. I called every grocery store and specialty food store in the area. No one even knew what labneh was, and they certainly didn't carry it. I found it by accident - at one of the stores I'd called - when I was looking for ricotta cheese for another recipe. (Of course, I was so excited to find the labneh, I forgot the ricotta. But that's a story for another day.)

I rushed home to make the dessert, only to find someone had eaten all the grapes.

When I came back with a new bunch of grapes, I wasn't going to leave anything to chance. It may have been the middle of the afternoon, but I was making this dessert before anything else went missing. And I had a near miss, when I reached for the honey and found it suspiciously light. I'd like to thank whoever in my family knew I needed exactly one tablespoon of honey, and left it thoughtfully around the sides of the jar.

After all that prep work, I realized I'd been right: the recipe was indeed both easy to make and wonderfully delicious. The sweet grapes married perfectly with the velvety labneh, and the buttery shortbread was a firm counterpoint to both. I've since made it again, and I'll keep making it. At least until the grappa runs out.

Roasted Fruit with Sweet Labneh
(adapted slightly from Seven Spoons by Tara O'Brady)

For the labneh:

Zest from 1/2 orange, finely grated
1/4 cup packed Demerara sugar, plus more for sprinkling
2 cups labneh

For the fruit:

1 Tbsp honey
2 Tbsp grappa
1 pound seedless grapes (the first time I made this, I just used grapes. The second time I included pineapple and fresh figs. They were both fantastic!)

For serving:

Shortbread or amaretti cookies

To prepare:

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

To make the labneh, rub the orange zest into the Demerara sugar. Fold it into the labneh until lightly mixed. (Note: if the labneh isn't firm, carefully scrape it into a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl, then cover and refrigerate until it is stable enough to form a peak.) Spread the labneh in ripples on an ovenproof plate. Sprinkle with more Demerara.

To prepare the grapes, thin the honey with the grappa in a large bowl. Snip the grapes into clusters and add to the bowl. (If using other fruit, add it here too.) Turn the fruit in the syrup then transfer to a roasting pan with a shallow rim.

Place both sides side by side in the oven and roast for 12 to 15 minutes. Carefully set the fruit atop the labneh and spoon any collected pan juices over all. Serve with cookies, crushed or whole.

Thursday's Child: Field of Dreams, Dyersville, Iowa

Friday, July 17, 2015

"If you build it, he will come."

Those words, from the movie Field of Dreams, were particularly true for us. It was the first movie Andrew and I saw together, before we started dating, and it's one of our favourites.  Our girls love it, too, even the one who doesn't like baseball. So yes, if they built this field - or rather, if they kept it after the movie was finished filming - it was destined that we would eventually come.

Everything about our visit was as perfect as the movie. The corn was tall enough that we could imagine a team of players wandering onto the field at any moment. We played catch in the outfield, we ran the bases, we sat in the stands. We were just about to leave when two players dressed in old-time White Sox uniforms arrived. (In case you're wondering, they came via car rather than the cornfield.) And it gave us a chance to reenact some of our favourite movie moments.

Shoeless Joe Jackson: "I'd wake up at night with the smell of the ball park in my nose, the cool of the grass on my feet ... the thrill of the grass."

Dr. Archibald "Moonlight' Graham: "To run the bases - stretch a double into a triple, and flop face-first into third, wrap your arms around the bag. That's my wish, Ray Kinsella. That's my wish. And is there enough magic out there in the moonlight to make this dream come true?"

Remember when Moonlight Graham crossed the foul line to save Karin?
Dr. Archibald 'Moonlight' Graham: "Son, if I'd only gotten to be a doctor for five minutes, now that would have been a tragedy."

Terence Mann: "Baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that was once good, and could be again. Oh ... people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come."

Ray Kinsella: "Hey, Dad. You wanna have a catch?"
John Kinsella: "I'd like that."

A siren song

Sunday, July 5, 2015

The sirens were mythological creatures who sang so irresistibly that they lured sailors to their deaths on the nearby rocks. That’s more or less what happened to me with this recipe, other than the ‘rocky death’ part.

I had a vision of the dessert I wanted to make. It would be a recreation of raspberry cheesecake in ice cream form. It would burst with fresh raspberries; it would be studded with chunks of cream cheese; it would offer thick bands of cookie butter to replace a graham cracker crust. And it had to be created without an ice cream maker, since I’ve never trusted myself enough to own one.

Cue the siren song.

I searched all my cookbooks. I searched high and low online. Such a recipe did not exist.

I tried to put the idea out of my mind, but it continued to tantalize me. The sirens kept singing.

I persevered, and found a few recipes that offered fragments of what I was looking for. I combined those elements in my kitchen and crossed my fingers. Would the recipe enchant me like a lovestruck sailor, or would it turn into a shipwreck?

I’m happy to say that this Raspberry Cheesecake Ice Cream surpassed my dreams. The disparate elements worked together harmoniously, with the richness of the ice cream being tamed by swirls of tart raspberries and dollops of tangy cream cheese. The gingery cookie butter sent the dessert into realms of Elysian glory.

Try it and see if you won’t be bewitched too.

Raspberry Cheesecake Ice Cream

1. For the ice cream

1 (8 ounce) package cream cheese, at room temperature
1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
1 tsp vanilla extract

2. For the cookie butter streaks

1/2 cup cookie butter

3. For the raspberry sauce

1 cup raspberries
3 Tbsp sugar
1 Tbsp vodka

To make the ice cream, beat the cream cheese until soft and fluffy, then slowly beat in the condensed milk until smooth. Beat in zest and vanilla. Pour into a bowl lined with plastic wrap, and freeze for at least 6 to 8 hours, until firm.

Meanwhile, spread the cookie butter on a sheet of parchment paper, shaping it into a 9" x 7" rectangle. Place the parchment paper on a baking sheet and set it in the freezer until the cookie butter is stiff, at least 2 hours. 

To make the raspberry sauce, smash the raspberries a bit and combine them with the sugar and vodka. Store in the fridge until the ice cream is ready.

When the ice cream is firm, remove both it and the cookie butter from the freezer. Line a loaf pan with plastic wrap and scoop about one quarter of the ice cream into the pan, spreading it as smoothly as possible. Tear about half the frozen cookie butter into pieces and lay them across the ice cream. (You'll have to move fairly quickly with the cookie butter as it softens quickly. Return it to the freezer between steps if you like.) Spread another one quarter of the ice cream on top and pour about half the raspberry mixture on top. Repeat, to use all the ingredients. 

Return the finished dessert to the freezer until ready to eat. You may wish to remove it 5 minutes before serving to let it soften a little.


Sunday, June 28, 2015

"When I see the bright clouds, a sky empty of moon and stars,
I wonder what I am, that anyone should note me.

Here there are blueberries, what should I fear?"

- from "Here, There Are Blueberries" by Mary Szybist

I spent the day at a family reunion at my cousin's farm near Iona, Ontario. The drive there and back was through pouring rain, but our time together was a great chance to catch up on family news. (So great, in fact, that I took no pictures at all. Whoops!) Among us, we have four children heading off to university in the fall – one to Princeton, one to McMaster, and two to Trent. It doesn’t seem like sixteen summers ago that my daughter was learning how to walk by navigating between lawn chairs with the same group of relatives.

Today there were six desserts to choose from, and three of them featured blueberries. I can never say no to my Aunt Lois’s Blueberry Delight, and it was, in fact, delightful. When I told her how much I loved it, she generously insisted on sending me home with another piece, which Andrew and I (mostly me) polished off for dinner.

It reminded me that I made a blueberry pie last month, and that I need to post the recipe today. It tasted like the best of summer – juicy, sweet, and intense. Here there are blueberries, indeed!

Blueberry Crumble Pie

One unbaked pie crust (preferably homemade)
1 egg, beaten to blend

2/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 Tbsp cornstarch
1 tsp finely grated lemon zest
2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice
5 cups blueberries
3/4 cup all purpose flour
3 Tbsp brown sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
pinch salt
5 Tbsp unsalted butter, melted


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line pie crust with parchment paper or foil, and fill with dried beans or pie weights. Bake until the crust is set, about 15 minutes. Remove the paper and beans, then brush the crust with the egg glaze. Bake until light brown, about 20 minutes. Cool completely.

Whisk together the sugar, cornstarch, and lemon zest in a large bowl. Add the blueberries and lemon juice, and toss together until combined. Let stand for 20 to 30 minutes, or until berries start to release their juices.

Whisk together the flour, brown sugar, cinnamon, and salt. Mix with the melted butter, using your fingertips to blend.

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Pour the blueberry filling into the crust and top with the crumble topping. Bake 1 hour and 15 minutes, or until filling is bubbling and topping is golden.

Thursday's Child: Faulty Towers

Thursday, June 25, 2015
La Merced Bell Tower, Granada, Nicaragua
Based on today's title, you might think I'm writing about towers that were built wrong - the Leaning Tower of Pisa and its ilk. But the only faults in these towers were in the people trying to climb them.

You see, my family has an issue with towers. One of us doesn't like steep flights of stairs. One doesn't like stairs with no handrails. One of us gets claustrophobic. And the fourth doesn't like towers one bit, for all these reasons.

And yet, that's rarely stopped us from climbing them.

Every city in Europe has at least one. The bell tower, the church tower, the city hall tower - each promising a breathtaking view. And in every new city, we think, "This time will be different. There will be a sturdy handrail all the way up, and the steps will be of uniform height. Maybe there's even enough room on the stairs for people walking up to pass those going down."

Ah, optimism.

Views from St. Vitus 
We've climbed the 343 steps of St Stephen's in Vienna, and the 287 steps of Prague's St. Vitus Cathedral. The tower in Segovia's Alcazar was a mere 152 stairs, but only three of us were willing to make the trip, and we took turns at the bottom with The One Who Wouldn't Climb.
Alcazar view

Me, with The One Who Would Climb
Earlier I mentioned the Tower of Pisa. I climbed it in the days when there was no safety barrier at the top. Andrew visited the Cologne Tower on his own, and said it's by far the tallest (533 steps) and hottest he has ever climbed, with some steps replaced by scaffolding. We both climbed Berlin's Siegessaule in the pouring rain - but that's a story for another day.

The most difficult ascent, however, was the Bell Tower in Granada, Nicaragua. It hit the trifecta of difficulty - crowded, steep and impossibly narrow. As we climbed the stairs, we stopped dozens of times, backs pressed against the wall, to let descending tourists pass. It was a hot day, and the rising temperature did nothing to encourage us. When we finally got to the top, my youngest daughter announced she wasn't going back down.

I was beginning to picture us rappelling back to earth, when she came up with her own solution. She wasn't going to walk down, but she wouldn't mind sitting, and bumping her way down the stairs on her backside. She received a few odd looks, but those on the way up were happy to make room for her. We reached the base in no time at all, a mere 72 bumps down.

Father's Day

Sunday, June 21, 2015
Me at one month old
Andrew and I celebrated Father's Day today by watching one of the most dramatic ballgames we've been to. The Blue Jays made it entertaining by rallying from a 7 - 0 deficit to take a 9 - 7 lead, although they eventually lost 13 - 9. An afternoon at the ball park is always fun, especially when it's with Andrew, one of the two best fathers I've ever known.

My own dad was a huge baseball fan, playing it for years and watching a televised ball game every Sunday afternoon. The first game I remember watching with him on TV was in 1975, when the parents of major league pitcher Luis Tiant were granted a special visa from the Cuban government to visit the United States to watch their son play. I knew nothing about baseball at the time, but I remember thinking what a big deal it was - Tiant hadn't seen his dad in fourteen years.

I only went to a handful of ball games with my dad, but they were games that mattered. He took me (and my mom and sister) to my first ball game on August 28, 1983. We went to Detroit, to watch the Blue Jays play in Tiger Stadium. Gwen and I bought Blue Jays' pennants, polished off a tub of popcorn by the second inning, and sang "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" with gusto. Although I had a vague preference to see the Jays win, I didn't think I cared all that much. But then the Jays, who held a 2-1 lead with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, lost when relief pitcher Joey McLaughlin gave up a home run to Chet Lemon. My sister and I were outraged, and insisted on flying the Jays' pennants out the car window until my dad made us pull them down. That began my love affair with baseball, and it gave my dad and me our biggest shared connection. We rooted for different teams (he cheered for the Indians), but whether it was our mutual disgust at the Tigers' 1984 series victory, or the Don Denkinger call in the 1985 World Series, our special bond was baseball, and it lasted for the rest of his life. He died twenty-nine years ago, and I still wish I could call him to talk about baseball.
Proud dad at my graduation