How to Make Gingerbread

Sunday, November 22, 2015
"Gingerbread made from scratch takes very little time and gives back tenfold what you put into it. Baking gingerbread perfumes a house as nothing else. It is good eaten warm or cool, iced or plain. It improves with age, should you be lucky or restrained enough to keep any around."

- Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking

Many years ago, I chose Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking for our book club. (Thanks to our book club archivists Martha and Sara, I know it was fourteen years ago, in March 2001.) If you love reading about food and haven't read Home Cooking, I urge you to pick up a copy. In every chapter, the author writes about food she loves, and in nearly every chapter she includes a recipe. The entire book is great, and you'll find a dozen recipes you want to try immediately. But the chapter in which I found my kindred spirit is the one called "How to Make Gingerbread."

As Colwin writes, gingerbread is the kind of old-fashioned, unglamorous dessert nobody really makes any more. And that's to our detriment. It may not have the dazzle of a three-tier iced cake, but I can't imagine a better way to celebrate my birthday than with a cake whose subtle aromas make the house smell like Christmas, and whose flavour is something The Nutcracker's Sugar Plum Fairy would have adored.

Colwin suggests icing the cake with cocoa icing, or using lemon icing. She also suggests serving it with creme fraiche and a poached pear, or simply shaking powdered sugar on top. I'm sure all those variations are wonderful. But the first time I made it, I served it with raspberry jam and whipped cream, and I will never, ever make it any other way. It is exquisite.

How good is this cake? When I served it, Andrew told me it's his favourite of all my recipes. Given the huge number of recipes I make, both on the blog and not, I have to think that's pretty high praise. I think I'll make it for his birthday, too.

"This ... little cake will feed six delicate, well-mannered people with small appetites who are on diets and have just had a large meal, or four fairly well-mannered people who are not terribly hungry. Two absolute pigs can devour it in one sitting - half for you and half for me - with a glass of milk and a cup of coffee and leave not a crumb for anyone else."

- Laurie Colwin, Home Cooking

I'm pleased to say the four of us (apparently delicate, well-mannered people) enjoyed our cake, with leftovers put away in the fridge. But the leftovers were gone by noon the next day.

(from Laurie Colwin's Home Cooking)

Note: Be sure to test the doneness of the cake. It can be a little finicky; sometimes the centre is still uncooked by the end of 30 minutes.


1 stick (1/2 cup) butter
1/2 cup dark or light brown sugar
1/2 cup light molasses
2 large eggs
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 1/2 Tbsp ground ginger, or to taste
1 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp ground cloves
1/4 tsp ground allspice
2 tsp vanilla extract or lemon brandy (do not use lemon extract)
1/2 cup buttermilk

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9" cake pan with parchment paper, or butter the sides and bottom.

Cream 1/2 cup butter with the brown sugar. Beat until fluffy, then add molasses and beat some more. Beat in the eggs.

Add flour, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves and allspice. Stir until combined.

Add vanilla extract and buttermilk, and stir until combined. Turn batter into pan.

Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, checking after 20 minutes. Cool on a rack.

Serve warm or cool, with raspberry jam and whipped cream.

Foodservice Friday: LaVinia restaurant

Friday, November 20, 2015
I'm fortunate to be part of a group of friends that celebrates our birthdays together. And when my turn came around earlier this month, they showed how well they knew me by choosing the ideal place to celebrate. Not only do I love trying new restaurants, tapas-style eating is one of my favourites, with share plates where we all try a little of everything.

"Tapas-style" is a phrase that gets used a lot, but in the case of LaVinia restaurant, it couldn't have been more authentic. The restaurant's spiritual inspiration is Madrid, the true home of tapas. And LaVinia was the real deal - from the crab croquettes to the Paella Valenciana to the mango cheesecake, every dish we ordered was full of flavour, and beautifully presented.

Photo courtesy of LaVinia
When I contacted chef Fernando, he said the inspiration behind LaVinia was to provide an authentic experience of Spain, and specifically of Madrid - not just with the food, but through every ingredient, the wine, and the service. He's been with many Michelin star restaurants, and has cooked beside Juan Marie Arzak, Adolfo (of Toledo, Spain), and Ferran Adria. Yes, that would be the great Ferran Adria of elBulli, often called the best restaurant in the world. So now I'm one degree of separation from Ferran Adria. The mind reels.

I think the measure of a great cook is his or her ability to prepare a really simple dish, and that was the case here. My favourite part of the meal was the plate of mushrooms sautéed in garlic and olive oil - simple, elegant, and exquisite. Don't just take my word for it, try it - and anything else on the menu!
Photo courtesy of LaVinia

2350 Lakeshore Blvd. West
(647) 748-2350

(All opinions are my own, and I received no compensation for this post.)

In memory of the victims of the Paris attacks

Saturday, November 14, 2015

"In the nightmare of the dark
All the dogs of Europe bark,
And the living nations wait,
Each sequestered in its hate;"

"In the deserts of the heart
Let the healing fountain start,
In the prison of his days
Teach the free man how to praise."

"What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day."

All quotes from "In Memory of W. B. Yeats" by W. H. Auden.
All photos taken in Paris, France: the Eiffel Tower, Père Lachaise cemetery, city scene from the Eiffel Tower.

Exotic ingredients

Sunday, November 1, 2015

It happens all the time. You find a great recipe that uses cheese you can't find locally. Or a fruit or vegetable that you've never seen for sale. Or a seasoning that's common in another country, but that none of your favourite stores carry.

Do you give up and make something else? Or do you go to the ends of the earth to make the longed-for recipe happen?

This is a tale of the latter.

When Andrew and I were in Chicago in July, we visited Mindy Segal's restaurant, Mindy's Hot Chocolate, as part of a food tour. We loved the chocolate drink we were served, and I promised myself I'd try her new cookbook as soon as I got home.

When I got back, I flipped through the pages of this gorgeous cookbook. Everything looked delicious, but the recipe that really called out to me was Barter Brownies. Apparently, the first time Mindy tried them, she loved them so much she bartered one of her own recipes in exchange for this one. High praise indeed from a James Beard-winning cook.

And I was all ready to make them, when I was stumped by the exotic ingredient in question - Cocoa Rice Krispies.

Apparently those of you who live in the US  can buy Cocoa Rice Krispies any time you like, but that's a pleasure denied to us Canadians. To the best of my knowledge and research abilities, Cocoa Rice Krispies are not sold here.

Fortunately, my aunt was visiting  from California in a few weeks, and I put in a special request. And she delivered, bringing the cereal in her suitcase. I didn't waste any time making these wonderful brownies, and my family didn't waste any time polishing them off with smiles on their faces.

And the best part is this - the recipe only calls for 1 1/2 cups of Cocoa Rice Krispies, which means I can make a few more batches before I have to put in another call for a special delivery.

Barter Brownies
(from Cookie Love by Mindy Segal and Kate Leavy)

For the brownies:

6 ounces bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces
3/4 cup (12 Tbsp) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
4 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
1 tsp pure vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp kosher salt

For the brittle:

8 ounces dark milk chocolate (Note: I couldn’t find dark milk chocolate anywhere, so I used 4 ounces dark chocolate and 4 ounces milk chocolate. It worked perfectly.)
1 1/2 cups chocolate puffed rice (e.g. Cocoa Rice Krispies)

To make the brownies:

Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Lightly coat a 9 x 13” pan or glass baking dish with parchment paper, leaving 1 inch of overhang on the long sides.

In a heatproof bowl set over (but not touching) barely simmering water in a pot, melt the chocolate and butter, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula. Keep warm.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, mix the sugars on low speed to combine. Add the warm chocolate mixture and stir to combine. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together.

Crack the eggs into a cup or bowl and add the vanilla.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour, cocoa, and baking powder. Whisk in the salt.

On medium speed, add the eggs and vanilla, one egg at a time, mixing briefly to incorporate before adding the next, approximately 5 seconds for each egg. Scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together. Mix on medium speed for 20 to 30 seconds to make nearly homogeneous.

Add the dry ingredients all at once and stir until the dough comes together but still looks shaggy. Do not overmix. Scrape the sides and the bottom of the bowl with a rubber spatula to bring the batter together.

Pour into the prepared pan. Bake, rotating the pan halfway through the baking process, until a thin crust appears on the top and a toothpick inserted into the centre of the pan draws out wet crumbs, 30 to 35 minutes. Cool completely in the pan.

To make the brittle:

Once the brownies are cool, in a heatproof bowl set over (but not touching) barely simmering water in a pot, melt the dark milk chocolate (or combination of dark and milk chocolate), stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula. Stir in the puffed rice. Using a large offset spatula, spread the brittle over the brownies in an even layer. Refrigerate until chilled.

Lift the brownies out of the pan using the parchment handles and transfer to a cutting board. Trim the edges. Cut the brownies and serve at room temperature.

The brownies can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.

The songs of Autumn

Sunday, October 25, 2015

"Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run."
- from "To Autumn" by John Keats

Just like I fell in love with peaches in the summer, I've become addicted to cauliflower this fall. It's a vegetable I was always ambivalent about, but now that I've started roasting it I can't get enough. Dishes like this one, full of roasted vegetables and accessorized with melted cheese, are perfect for the days of mid-fall, when the sun sets earlier every day and we need a coat when we step outside. But as Keats reminds us, fall has a special beauty of its own.

"Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too."
- from "To Autumn" by John Keats

Roasted Cauliflower, Cremini, Gruyere and Rosemary Gratin

3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil (first amount)
2 tsp extra-virgin olive oil  (second amount)
extra olive oil to rub baking dish with
kosher salt
Florets from 1 small head cauliflower, each about 1 1/2" long and cut with one flat side
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, quartered if large or halved if small
3/4 cup coarse fresh breadcrumbs (she recommends using an English muffin)
1/2 tsp chopped fresh rosemary (first amount)
3/4 tsp chopped fresh rosemary (second amount)
1/2 cup grated Gruyere cheese
1/2 cup heavy cream

Heat the oven to 450 degrees. Line a large heavy-duty sheet pan with parchment paper. Toss the cauliflower and mushrooms with 3 Tbsp olive oil and 1/2 tsp kosher salt. Spread the vegetables out in one layer on the pan sheet, flipping the florets so they're cut side down. Roast until nicely browned and tender, about 28 to 30 minutes. 

In a small bowl, combine breadcrumbs, 2 tsp olive oil, 1/2 tsp chopped rosemary and a pinch of salt. Mix well and set aside.

Reduce oven temperature to 425 degrees.

Rub a little olive oil all over the inside of a small baking dish. (I used a 9-inch round baking dish.) 

Transfer roasted vegetables to the baking dish and arrange in one layer across the bottom. Sprinkle the remaining rosemary and the cheese over the vegetables. Drizzle the cream over the vegetables. Scatter the breadcrumb mixture over the top, leaving some vegetables peeking out.

Bake until the crumbs are well-browned and the cream has bubbled and reduced, about 18 to 20 minutes. Serve hot or warm.

Foodservice Friday: Tich

Friday, October 23, 2015

All photos courtesy of Tich
A few weeks ago, I ordered takeout from an Indian restaurant. I'd been looking forward to trying Tich since I read its terrific review in the Globe and Mail, and even more since my friend Audra recommended it. I couldn't wait to try their food.

When I got home from the restaurant with my takeout, though, I realized they'd forgotten to put one of my items in the bag. I called to let them know, not really sure what they could do. I didn't want to spend 25 minutes in the car just to pick up dessert, but maybe they could take note, and make good on it the next time I was in the area.

When I called, the owner picked up the phone. She was sorry to hear they'd made a mistake and wanted to make it up to me. Not sometime in the future, but right then.

And that's how I found myself, fifteen minutes later, opening my front door to the owner of Tich, and receiving the small paper bag that she'd brought my dessert in. Bear in mind, they don't currently deliver food, and even if they did, I live outside of their delivery area. Oh, and when I tried to pay her for her troubles, she refused to take my money.

That was my introduction to Tich, but let's be clear - the food was so amazing I'd go back even without the personalized service. The chicken tikka masala was the best I've ever eaten. And that dessert that was hand-delivered? The gulab jamun (described as "milk dumplings, soaked in rose-scented sugar syrup") was as dreamy as it sounds.

I later asked the owner, Karan Kalia, a few questions, and she was as lovely by email as she is in person. Her background is in commerce, and after she moved from India to Canada, she took a job as an administrative and HR manager. The whole time, the idea of owning a restaurant was in the back of her mind, but she took her time making it happen. One day she was driving by a building that was available for lease. She called to inquire, and in her own words, "Before I could realize, we had a restaurant in the making!" I wasn't surprised to hear that, for her, the greatest pleasure in owning a restaurant is making her customers happy, and seeing them come back again and again.

She told me she's always had a flair for entertaining - now, she just extends it from her living room to her restaurant. Based on my experience, she has a flair for service, too. Having seen the inside of her lovely restaurant when I picked up my meal, I can't wait to go back. But next time I won't depend on her generosity to bring me dessert - I'll enjoy my meal right there.

2314 Lakeshore Blvd West
(647) 349-8424

(All opinions are my own, and I received no compensation for this post.)

No-ingredient cookies

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Did you ever want to do some baking, and have the ingredients for … nothing?

One Sunday afternoon last spring, I wanted to bake cookies for my daughter’s school lunches. The only problem is that I try to minimize the tempting ingredients in my house. So unless I’ve planned ahead, I don’t typically have fun ingredients like chocolate chips, toffee bits, or condensed milk on hand. That particular afternoon, I was particularly ingredient-challenged: a quick search of the cupboards showed I was also completely out of peanut butter and cinnamon.

In other words, I had the ingredients for none of my cookie recipes.

That’s where a little ingenuity came into play. I made these cookies based on the staples I always carry (flour, sugar, eggs) and the tin of cocoa in the cupboard. I wasn’t expecting much, but they received rave reviews from my daughter, who couldn’t get over how much she loved them.

I waited a long time to post this recipe, but it's a keeper – in fact, the same daughter has since taken a batch back to university with her. And although I’ve also made them with chunks of Skor bars (pictured), they’re wonderful without. Keep these cookies in mind the next time you're caught with no ingredients in your cupboard.

Cocoa Cookies
This makes a smallish batch; you can double the recipe.

1 1/4 sticks butter, at room temperature
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg
2 tsp vanilla
1/2 cup cocoa
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 cup flour
2 Skor bars, cut into chunks (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Beat butter and sugar on medium speed for 4 to 5 minutes, until light and creamy. Add egg and vanilla, and beat 2 more minutes, until completely combined. Add cocoa, baking soda and kosher salt, and beat on low until just mixed. Remove beater, and stir in flour with a spoon until just combined.

Add Skor bar chunks. (Or don’t! They’re great without.)

Form into balls on cookie sheet and bake for 8 minutes. Let sit on cookie sheet for 5 minutes before removing to cool.