June 25, 2009

cherry clafoutis

Cherries always remind me of childhood summers - countless carefree hours spent playing under my grandparents' cherry tree, my sisters and I, challenging each other to pit-spitting contests, cherry juice staining our hands and faces and, as you might imagine, usually our clothes as well.

Cherries are everywhere right now and, as I was sitting in the afternoon sun indulging, I thought about baking with cherries. I rarely do it but I'm not sure why - perhaps it seems like too much trouble with all the pitting required or perhaps it's because cherries don't seem to hang around long enough in our kitchen to even think about turning them into a dessert.

This time, however, I was determined to do just that and I immediately turned to the cherry clafoutis from one of my favourite cookbooks (and the inspiration for the title of my blog), In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Guide to the Baker's Pantry by Regan Daley.

Traditionally clafoutis is made with whole cherries, pit and all, but I decided to be a little kinder to my guests and pit the cherries. I settled in to what I thought would be a seriously tedious task but it was actually very quick and easy, although I have to admit that I did use a cherry pitter (a unitasker worth making room for in the kitchen).

Frankly the rest of the dessert was just as easy - a simple custard, poured over the fruit, baked in the oven until puffed and golden.

I took a couple of liberties with the original recipe, swapping out the Kirsch and replacing it with Amaretto and using 10% cream rather than half whole milk and half whipping cream. I also added a few more cherries than called for in the original recipe, which made the custard a bit loose, taking longer to set in the oven and causing me to overbake the clafoutis slightly. Not that anyone complained!

Cherry Clafoutis

1 1/2 pounds ripe sweet cherries
1 1/2 cups 10% cream (or half milk and half whipping cream)
1 tsp vanilla
4 large eggs
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/4 tsp salt
2 tbsp Amaretto or cherry liqueur

Preheat oven to 375°F and butter a 2 quart baking dish. Pit cherries and scatter in the bottom of the dish. Set aside.

To prepare the custard bring the cream (or milk and cream if using half and half) to a boil and remove from heat. Add vanilla and set aside.

Mix together dry ingredients and set aside.

Beat the eggs, adding sugar slowly until mixture thickens and is pale yellow in colour. Add dry ingredients in 3 additions, beating thoroughly after each addition. Add a small amount of the hot cream mixture, beating constantly, then slowly add the rest of the liquid while beating the mixture. Stir in the liqueur.

Pour custard over the cherries and bake until the centre is just set and the custard is puffed and brown, 30-40 minutes. Cool at least 15 minutes then dust with icing sugar and serve warm or at room temperature.

June 19, 2009

5 unnecessary unitaskers

I love kitchen gadgets and have spent many hours browsing kitchen stores for the latest and greatest. You can imagine then that I am not opposed to kitchen unitaskers on principle but, given that real estate is very limited in my kitchen, gadgets definitely have to justify their existence or very quickly find their way to the Goodwill box.

1. Onion goggles

You've probably seen these by now - they have appeared in just about every cooking show and food publication over the last couple of years. The goggles are designed to prevent tears when cutting onions and by all accounts they definitely do the trick.

Don't want no more of the crying game? Onion goggles may be for you but frankly I think it would take me longer to find them in my cluttered kitchen than to wipe away the tears.

2. Mini hibachi grill

This mini hibachi grill operates with cooking fuel but, at only 4.5" in height and 3.5" in diameter, it's not entirely clear what you will be grilling with this thing.

Have an insatiable urge to make tableside s'mores? Go for it but I'm more likely to set fire to the dining room table and prefer my marshmallows roasted on a stick fireside in the bush so I'll take a pass on this one.

3. Banana guard

The banana guard is a plastic container aimed at "preventing the tragedy of bruised bananas". Apparently the banana's thick skin, while sufficient to protect the fruit on its journey halfway around the world, doesn't do an adequate job protecting it in our lunch bags.

If you regularly beat up your fruit then maybe. But for the rest of us? Get real.

4. Egg Separator

There are thousands of models out there but the concept is always the same: crack an egg into the well and the whites run out the sides while the yolk stays in its cradle.

If you want a cute kitchen friend like Yolky here I get it but as far as I'm concerned he's purely decorative. Myself, I will stick with the old-fashioned method of separating eggs using their shells -it's way faster, works better and there is one less gadget to wash!

5. Lettuce knife

The plastic lettuce knife is designed to cut lettuce - apparently the plastic serrated edge avoids browning.

Newsflash: tearing lettuce accomplishes the same thing.

What about you? What are your top useless unitaskers?

June 17, 2009

June 15, 2009

don't judge a cake by its name

Cottage cheese batter cake. Doesn't exactly sing does it? I could easily have glossed over this recipe in Lucy Waverman's column in the Globe and Mail this weekend except that I am a sucker for family recipes and was hooked by Lucy's claim that this was her grandmother's recipe.

An internet search quickly revealed an identical recipe on the Egg Farmers of Ontario site so I began to question the family recipe angle but decided to forge ahead regardless - not sure why at this point since I really dislike cottage cheese.

The ingredients were quickly assembled from my pantry, except for the cheese which required a quick trip to the market. I have never met a cheese that I didn't like - other than the cottage variety - so, arriving at home, I decided to give it another shot. To no avail - it was just as nasty as the first time I tried it. And yet I pressed on, undeterred.

Everything was then dumped into the food processor and at this point the batter was reminiscent of a dog's breakfast. Far from appetizing but I figured a few pulses would improve its appeal.

Yeah, not so much. After a considerable number of pulses in the Moulinex, the batter was still quite unattractive, with a grainy texture. At this point any sane person would have given up, saving the electricity involved in baking this mess, but I persevered and put the batter in the oven thinking it would surely look better once it was cooked.

Again, I couldn't have been more wrong. The cake was pallid and sank in the middle the moment I took it out of the oven. I really considered throwing it out at this point but I had already washed the strawberries so on I went.

Once the topping was in place and the first piece cut, there was only one thing left to do - taste it. Normally I have trouble waiting until a cake has cooled completely before diving in but in this case I was having serious baker's remorse as the cake looked dense, heavy and underbaked and I was not looking forward to the first bite. Having made this much of a commitment eventually I had no choice but to take the final step - and to my great surprise the cake sang! It sang the hallelujah chorus in fact!!!

It was good, very good. Light and not too sweet - in fact it was somewhat tart (perhaps due to the fact that my strawberries were a bit anemic) - it's the perfect dessert for a summer cookout. Oh Lucy, why did I ever doubt you?

June 13, 2009

the humble loquat

Known as nespole in Italian, loquats always transport my mom back to her childhood in Italy so it's not surprising that she included some in the enormous fruit tray she brought me recently.

The loquat looks like the apricot's bald and blemished cousin. Its texture is almost that of a pear but it's more acidic. Cut into it and you will find multiple pits, which are toxic and must be discarded before eating.

According to the Field Guide to Produce: How to Identify, Select and Prepare Virtually Every Fruit and Vegetable At the Market it tastes like "a mix of apricot, plum, and pineapple, with floral overtones." I can't really pick out those flavours in the fruit but, then again, I am also the person who smiles idiotically at wine tastings, hoping that no one will notice that I am clueless (thankfully!) when they say they taste notes of pencil shavings or barnyard.

Loquats don't seem to have much of a presence in North America but interestingly I was not surprised to find that there is a Loquat World in California. According to their website the loquat is much more than just a fruit - the leaves are used in Chinese medicine to treat various ailments and can be brewed into a tea. I can't vouch for that but if you happen to fall in love with loquats check out their site for recipes and more.

As for me, I think that I will just continue to eat them out of hand.

June 5, 2009

celebration cupcakes

The last 3 weeks have been pretty rough as I've been dealing with some health issues so when I got my test results yesterday and got a clean bill of health it was time to celebrate. For me, that means baking!

I had the itch but I was undecided about what to bake when I saw Tara's post, Cupcakery inspiration, on her wonderful blog Seven Spoons. Cupcakes were perfect - not too taxing (I'm not yet fully recovered) but a delicious way to ease back into baking.

In honour of the launch of Martha Stewart's new cookbook Martha Stewart's Cupcakes: 175 Inspired Ideas for Everyone's Favorite Treat, I decided to continue Tara's Martha theme and baked a batch of Martha's One-Bowl Chocolate Cupcakes. These cupcakes are perfect for mid-recovery since they really are dump and stir! And they're moist and delicious to boot.

The cupcakes baked up beautifully, as usual, but cried out for icing. I didn't have the energy for anything fancy so I pulled out a recipe from one of my favourite cookbooks, In the Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Guide to the Baker's Pantry by Regan Daley. I wanted something to counterbalance the sweetness of the cupcakes and decided to adapt her recipe for Chocolate Butter Icing into a delicious mocha icing.


Easy Mocha Butter Icing

1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups icing sugar
2 tbsp. water
1 1/2 tbsp cocoa powder
1 tbsp instant espresso powder
1 tsp vanilla extract

Cream butter and half of the icing sugar. Add 1 tbsp water and stir.

Add the remaining ingredients, reserving the water and adding only if needed to achieve a creamy consistency.

This recipe makes enough to frost a square cake liberally or 24 cupcakes with a thin layer of icing.

June 3, 2009

spaghetti al pomodoro

Fresh tomatoes, straight from the garden and still warm from the sun, have to be one of my favourite things about summer. They bring back childhood memories of summers spent in Italy, popping tomatoes like candy and sitting down to late-night suppers of crusty bread, salty cheese and luscious tomato salad.

For lunch we often made pasta with fresh tomatoes - even in the most extreme heat Italians are hard-pressed to give up their pasta so quick-cooking or no-cook sauces are a must and spaghetti al pomodoro is an absolute favourite.

It's not quite tomato season here yet but when I saw these gorgeous ripe cocktail tomatoes I immediately rushed home and announced we were having fresh tomato sauce for dinner.

Normally, I like to eat local and seasonal as much as possible but it's been so miserable lately - cool and wet - and we have been starved for signs of spring so you will understand why I found it hard to resist a bowl of sunshine. Since the tomatoes are local, albeit of the hothouse variety, I didn't feel too guilty about it and once I had my first bite any vestiges of guilt went right out the window.

The key to this sauce, as to much of Italian cooking, is the quality of the ingredients. The tomatoes must be ripe - preferably vine-ripened - and traditionally plum tomatoes are used in this sauce. If you really want to be traditional, the San Marzano variety is the way to go but they can be very difficult to find fresh and you do not want to substitute canned tomatoes in this recipe - you will still get a lovely sauce but it will not have the fresh bite which defines this sauce.

If you are lucky enough to have ripe plum tomatoes go for it but you will probably want to peel them first - it's not an absolute must but the skins will definitely be noticeable in the sauce and some may find them difficult to digest. To peel the tomatoes, with a paring knife simply cut a shallow X into the skin at the bottom end of the fruit and plunge into boiling water very briefly, just until the cut edges start to lift. This should only take seconds. Remove immediately from the boiling water and the skins will slip off easily using a paring knife.

However, those of us in colder climes may need to improvise since vine-ripened plum tomatoes, of whatever variety, are only available a few months out of the year. Cocktail or cherry tomatoes are perfectly acceptable substitutes - they are incredibly sweet and the skins are so delicate they will virtually melt into the sauce so there isn't even any need to peel them.

You will want to avoid using globe or beefsteak tomatoes as they are too watery for this application and will not make a very good sauce.

The recipe is at the bottom of the post but really this couldn't be simpler. Gently heat olive oil in a large fry pan and add garlic, roughly chopped. You want to cook this very gently for a few moments only - the garlic should not have any colour - then add the tomatoes, which should be cut in half (if using cocktail or cherry tomatoes) or in quarters (if using plum tomatoes).

Add a pinch of salt and simmer tomato sauce while pasta is cooking, then drain spaghetti and add to the tomato sauce. Toss with generous amounts of torn basil leaves and serve immediately.

Spaghetti al pomodoro is my submission to Presto Pasta Night, hosted this week by PPN's founder, Ruth of Once Upon a Feast. The roundup will be posted on Ruth's site on Friday and is always worth a peek.

Spaghetti al pomodoro
Serves 4

320 g (11 oz) spaghetti or other pasta
500 g (17oz) ripe cocktail or cherry tomatoes
2 cloves garlic, roughly chopped or sliced
2 tbsp olive oil
pinch of salt
10 fresh basil leaves, torn

Cook pasta according to package directions.

While pasta is cooking, heat large fry pan over medium-low heat with olive oil and garlic. Allow garlic to cook gently for a few moments, just until fragrant, but garlic should not acquire any colour.

Cut tomatoes in half and add to fry pan, turn heat up to medium, add a pinch of salt to taste, and allow sauce to simmer until pasta is cooked. The tomatoes will exude a lot of juice and this sauce will be loose but if you want a slightly thicker sauce just turn up the heat to allow the sauce to reduce.

When the pasta is cooked, drain it and add to the sauce. Toss with the tomatoes and fresh basil and serve immediately and make sure that you have some crusty bread on hand to mop up any extra sauce.

Buon appetito!