February 28, 2009

Buttermilk waffles

Waffles and maple syrup on a cold and dreary February morning.  I ask you, is there anything better?

I was always a pancake girl but my mother recently gave me her old waffle iron and I finally took it out for a test run.  As you can see from my photo my waffles were slightly misshapen (I need to add more batter next time) but absolutely delicious.

The recipe I used is for buttermilk waffles from the The America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook(I don't think I have mentioned my obsession with America's Test Kitchen yet.  More about that in a future post).

The recipe called for a few basic ingredients but required that the eggs be separated and the whites whipped to stiff peaks.  I almost went with a different recipe because the thought of washing my mixer bowl and attachments first thing in the morning seemed like too much of a chore.  

In the end I decided to channel my inner Martha (who also extols the virtues of beating the whites separately by the way) and was handsomely rewarded for my efforts.  The waffles were perfect with maple syrup (the real stuff from Québec bien sûr).

February 26, 2009

Oatmeal to go...

Starbucks has been offering a few new breakfast options recently, including oatmeal.  Now, I am a chronic breakfast skipper but I love a bowl of oatmeal so I was curious to find out what "perfect" oatmeal tastes like.   

Tempted as I was, however, I just couldn't bring myself to spend $3.45 on oatmeal so when a coupon for a free bowl arrived in the mail I jumped at the opportunity to try it.  

When the barista asked me if I wanted it with "everything" of course I said yes even though I had no idea what that meant.  Turns out it means dried fruit, nuts and brown sugar over instant (yep, instant) oatmeal.

Instant oatmeal for $3.45????? I was dumbfounded when I saw her pour hot water from the spigot into the bowl and hand it to me - she didn't even try to hide the fact that it was instant.  I think my mouth may have been hanging open at the brazen audacity of it all.

Anyway, the oatmeal was fine even though it was a bit too sweet for my taste, but it got me thinking about how I could make my own oatmeal to go at work.   

I tossed some dried blueberries and cherries into a mason jar with some brown sugar and walnuts and took it to work with me with a box of instant oatmeal (I am partial to President's Choice Blue Menu Multi-Grain Instant Oatmeal).  

While I still prefer large flake or steel-cut stove-top oatmeal on the weekend, now I can enjoy a warm bowl of oatmeal (with "everything") at work and it is never more than a teakettle away.  

February 23, 2009

Le Pain Quotidien

With much fanfare Le Pain Quotidien opened an outlet in Toronto's financial district last year.  Unfortunately it closed abruptly at the end of the day on Friday - without any notice and apparently for good.  

I don't know how the other locations in the city are faring but this one always seemed to be deserted and the general consensus is that the food was mediocre and overpriced. With all of the high-end lunch places that have sprung up in the downtown core in recent years, the fact that LPQ could still induce sticker shock in jaded Bay Street path rats says a lot!  

LPQ seems to be a successful franchise and has outlets in Europe and the US. Just what does this say about Torontonians - are we discerning or just cheap? Or is it a sign that the global financial crisis is finally starting to hit home (and our wallets)? 

February 20, 2009

Pizza napoletana

My family's roots are in Campania, the Italian province of which Napoli, the birthplace of pizza, is the capital.  Sunday nights have always been pizza night in my family so it's probably not surprising that pizza is one of my favourite dishes.

Aside from being exceptionally tasty, pizza is also quick and easy to make at home.  Add some extra veggies and you can serve up a delicious and healthier version of your favourite take-out with very little effort.

Refrigerated pizza dough is widely available at grocery stores and Italian bakeries and makes great homemade pizza.  Whole-wheat dough is becoming more available and Longo's has a low-sodium whole-wheat pizza dough that is excellent and is also available for home delivery through Grocery Gateway.

While I often buy ready-made pizza dough, I like to make my own whenever I can.  It's really easy - you just have to factor in the rising time.  If you make it the day before you can let it rise in the refrigerator or you can freeze the dough after rising so that you have it ready anytime the mood strikes - just let it defrost in the refrigerator overnight.

I use a large commercial deep dish pizza pan but a half-sheet pan will do nicely as well - and sprinkle some cornmeal on the bottom then spread out the dough with your fingers.  I don't like to use oil in the pan as I find it makes the crust greasy.

I like to use my fingers to press down on the dough from the centre while stretching it out gently.  The dough will be a little tacky but shouldn't be too sticky.  If you find that it's sticking to your hands too much then rub a little olive oil on them.

It's best if you let the dough come to room temperature before spreading it but if you're rushed you can use chilled dough, it will just be a bit harder to spread.  If the dough springs back when you're spreading it just let it rest for a few minutes and stretch it out again.  

Then all you have to do is add your favourite toppings and throw it into a hot oven.   If you have a pizza stone feel free to use it.  Personally, I find that it's more trouble than it's worth but my brother-in-law swears by his pizza stone and his pizza is amazing.  Entirely up to you. 

When it comes to toppings I have to admit that I am a bit of a purist.  My favourite pizza is the margherita - tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella (buffalo if available) with a splash of fresh olive oil and a sprig of fresh basil added after it's baked.  Made in a wood-burning oven it's a transcendent experience.

At home I have to compromise a bit.  Fresh mozzarella is yummy but makes for a soggy crust without the high heat of a wood-burning oven so I usually use grated mozzarella.  If you want to use fresh mozzarella I suggest letting it drain for a day or two in a colander set over a deep bowl in the refrigerator so that it releases some of its water.

Mushrooms, onions and cured ham also make occasional appearances on my pizza but my first love will always be the margherita.

Try making pizza at home - I promise you will thank me.

Pizza Dough
Makes enough dough for 2 large pizzas.  Once risen, dough can be placed in a freezer bag and frozen - defrost in refrigerator overnight before use.

1 kg all purpose flour (unbleached preferred)
600g water
6g traditional active dry yeast
3g salt

Proof yeast in a small bowl with 100g of warm water.  Add flour and salt to the bowl of a stand mixer and mix on low speed just to combine.  Add the proofed yeast and the remaining 500g of water and use a dough hook to knead the dough in the mixer on medium speed for 7 to 8 minutes or until the dough comes away from the sides of the bowl and is smooth.  The dough will be tacky at this point and may be sticking slightly to the bottom of the bowl.  If it's too sticky or to wet add more flour or water, a tablespoon at a time, until you achieve the right consistency.

Remove bowl from mixer and pour a small amount of olive oil (1tsp) over dough, rotating it in the bowl so that the oil coats the entire surface.  Cover bowl with a clean kitchen towel and set aside in a warm place to rise until doubled in size (this will probably take a couple of hours). Alternatively, you can cover the bowl with plastic wrap and put it in the refrigerator overnight.

Divide dough in half and spread each half in a large pizza pan sprinkled with cornmeal.  Top pizza and bake in a 475°F oven for approximately 15 minutes or until bottom of crust is browned (you should be able to lift up the edge of the pizza with a spatula or wooden spoon to check the bottom).  Allow to cool slightly, slice and enjoy!

Tomato Sauce
Makes enough for 1 large pizza.

350ml canned plum tomatoes
1tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove
salt to taste

Slice garlic and place in cold saucepan with olive oil.  Heat gently over medium heat until garlic starts to sizzle - this should only take a few minutes and once you smell the garlic you're ready to move on to the next step.

Add the canned tomatoes and crush with the back of a spoon.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer 10-15 minutes. Allow to cool before spreading on pizza.


February 17, 2009

Adventures in tea

About a year ago I gave up drinking coffee and replaced it with tea.  Green, black, white, tisane - you name it.  I have become obsessed with trying new varieties and now I can't go into a store without checking out the tea section.  

A few years ago on a trip to Paris I discovered first-hand the magic of the Mariage Frères Maison de Thé.  With origins stretching back to Nicolas Mariage's adventures in tea in the 17th century it is a charming place to buy excellent quality tea.  There are three tea rooms in Paris and a number of tea counters throughout Paris and France as well as one location in Germany (not an obvious choice) and several in Japan.  While you can find a limited selection of these teas in specialty shops, if you find yourself in Paris do yourself a favour and stop in at one of the tea rooms!  

But now it seems that wherever I look everyone is getting into tea in a big way, with more exotic flavours than ever before.  Was this always there and I'm just noticing it or is this a new trend?  Even Tetley now has an interesting selection of herbal teas, including my favourite Tetley blend - Tranquil (Sérénité) - a blend of lemon balm, fennel, lavender, passionflower, rose petals and orange blossom.  It's a bit harder to find than the other varieties but many grocery store locations carry it and it's well worth the bit of extra work to find it.

More recently I also noticed that Starbucks has jumped on the tea bandwagon in a big way, launching its 'TeaTime at Starbucks'.  I have become a fan of the Tazo Zen - a blend of green tea, spearmint and lemongrass - and the Wild Sweet Orange - not a tea but a tisane of lemongrass, citrus herbs, licorice root and orange essence.  I don't usually like fruit infusions but the lemongrass and licorice root are lovely and the aroma is heavenly.

Did you know that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world, after water? There is also a fair amount of evidence of the health benefits of tea, in particular green tea which is made from unfermented tea leaves and contains high levels of antioxidants (polyphenols). White tea, less common than green or black teas, is also made from unfermented tea leaves except that they are picked before the buds fully open and are even less processed than green tea.  White tea is also said to contain higher levels of polyphenols than any other tea.

Green and white teas require more delicate brewing methods than black teas and it is commonly recommended that they be brewed with water that is just below the boiling point (about 80ºC).  My current favourite is the Marrakesh Mint at Teopia

I began drinking tea on a regular basis for health reasons but have begun to discover the pleasures of a cuppa. Next on my list:  oolong!   

February 16, 2009

Welcome to my kitchen!

My first post - wow, I can hardly believe it!  

I have been following food blogs for awhile and have been so inspired by them that I have finally worked up the courage to give it a try myself.  Please bear with me as I work out the kinks and figure out how to do this!

Baking is what I am most passionate about but, being of Italian heritage, food has always played an important role in my life.  I love to cook and experiment with new dishes and I want to share my enthusiasm for simple and delicious food.    

So, for my first post, I want to say welcome to my kitchen.  Benvenuti!