A Lighter Side to Fruitcake

Fruitcake seems to perpetually have a bad rap. Not entirely sure why. I mention the words "fruit cake" to someone and they are often met with "ehwww....I hate fruit cake. So gross.". Why? What did fruit cake ever do to them?

Many find fruit cake too dense and heavy. True, a number of fruitcakes are made this way. I have discovered that most commercially made fruitcakes contain too much fruit to batter ratio and this is what makes them so heavy. Added to this is a thick layer of overly sweet marzipan (personally, I'm not a fan of the stuff in any season).

I've been making our family fruitcakes for years. I like to make two types. One with the traditional candied cherries and peel and nuts and dark raisins. The other I make with only the light fruit. Golden raisins, dried citrus peel, dried cranberries and slivered almonds. This mixture gives the cakes a more blonde appearance with the red dried cranberries giving just a bit of colour.

I also separate the egg yolks from the egg whites (trivia question - what is the egg white called . . . besides "egg white"). The yolks get blended into the cream mixture while the egg whites are beaten stiff and then folded in at the end. This makes for a lighter, airier cake.

Another problem with fruitcake is that it can be dry. Good fruitcake remains moist. This comes from properly curing the fruitcake. And this takes time. And brandy. And a dark closet. So I usually start the fruitcakes in mid October.

So here is the recipe our family has used as far back as I can remember.

Blonde Fruitcake

Fruit Mixture
2              cup         golden raisins
1              cup         diced candied citron
1              cup         dried cranberries
1              cup         candied pineapple, chopped
1              cup         slivered almonds
1              cup         brandy, orange brandy, asbach or spiced rum

¾             cup         milk
¼             cup         brandy, orange brandy, asbach or spiced rum
1              tsp          almond extract
1 ½          cup         butter, softened
2              cup         granulated sugar
6                            eggs, separated
3 ½          cup         all purpose flour
1              tsp          cream of tartar

Cheesecloth for wrapping cakes
2              cup         brandy, orange brandy, asbach or spiced rum

In a large bowl, combine the raisins, candied citron, cranberries, pineapple and slivered almonds with the 1 cup liquor and toss to coat. Cover and allow to sit for two days. Toss, and allow to sit for another two days. Repeat until all liquid has been absorbed by the fruit mixture (about a week).

Butter 4 standard sized loaf pans (8 ½ x 4 ½ x 2 ½ “). Line bottoms with brown paper. Butter brown paper. Preheat oven to 275 degrees F.

Combine the milk, ¼ cup liquor and almond extract and set aside. In a large mixer bowl, cream the butter at medium speed until creamy. Gradually add the granulated sugar, beating until light and fluffy. Add egg yolks, one at a time, beating well after each addition.

Add the flour alternately with the milk mixture, beating well after each addition. Pour over fruit mixture. Mic well and set aside.

In a clean mixer bowl and with clean beaters, whip the egg whites on high speed until foamy. Add the cream of tartar and beat until still peaks form. Fold into batter. Spoon batter into prepared loaf pans. Pack evenly by pressing down batter with the back of a wooden spoon.

Bake at 275 degrees F for 1 ¾ hours until skewer inserted into center of each cake comes out clean. Remove pans from oven and cool in pans on wire racks for 30 minutes. Run knife around edge of cakes to loosen. Remove cakes from pans. Peel off paper and allow cakes to cool completely.

Wrap each cake with a double layer of cheesecloth. Using extra liquor, brush each cake with enough liquid to dampen cheesecloth. Wrap cakes in aluminum foil and store in a dark closet for 2 to 3 weeks, brushing occasionally with more liquor.

Cured cakes can be frozen for up to a year. 

A New Look for Hoop Earrings

Here's a quick fix for giving new life to your existing jewelry.

These connectors and pendants by EverLuxe are delicate and light enough to be threaded onto silver or gold hoops to add a new dimension to your existing earrings.

Or, you could place them between a stud earring and your ear. Imagine a diamond or colored stone sparkling at the top of these.

They would look great with pearl studs as well. And at such great prices, you can easily create several new looks by changing and swapping the look to extend your jewelry wardrobe.

Stick a Fork in it . . .

Earlier today I was sitting in the window on a cold and dreary day, sipping a cup of tea and wishing for the sunshine. Or even just a little brightness in the day to lift my spirits.

And then there was a knock at the door . . . .

Look what arrived today! A new bracelet . . . made from an old fork. I’ve only worn it to the store and to the post office and already I have had three comments on how unique and interesting it is. And I have to agree.

One of the nice things about this bracelet is that it fits my small wrist comfortably, since it is more oval than round. I sometimes find wrist cuffs or cuff bracelets just don’t sit right when I’m at the computer. They keep banging around on stuff. I thought it was because they were too big. Then a light bulb went on and I realized it wasn’t necessarily the SIZE of the bracelet, but the SHAPE. Oval bracelets with the same circumference as round bracelets will move less because they sit flatter and have less room to go anywhere. Yes, I know it seems like a simple concept, and no, I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t figure this out before.

This design shown right (and mine, shown above) is by The Fork Whisperer. Each of the pieces is done individually so each one is different. Even though they are silver, there is something organic about the curves and shapes that the artist coaxes out of each utensil. The once straight and rigid tines appear softer and more graceful.

Anyhow, here are a couple examples of fork bracelets for you to enjoy and marvel over. A fork around your wrist you say? How bizarre, how unusual. I say how handy . . . in case you find yourself buying lunch from a street cart and are in need of some cutlery.

Paris Chic meets Dark Espresso

Anyone who has seen my apartment (and not many people have, since it is still in the final stages of renovation.) will note that most of my furniture is dark espresso and fairly contemporary. Bedroom set? dark espresso with black leather insets in the headboard. Dining room chairs? dark espresso with beige ultra suede. Book shelves? You guessed it, dark espresso with pictures in dark espresso or silver frames. Even my crown molding and baseboards are now painted in Behr # 790B-7 Bitter Chocolate Espresso. And I don’t even like coffee.

So I find it a bit interesting that recently I have become drawn to French style occasional furniture. Perhaps it is a reflection back to my
stay in Paris in my oh-la-la bed & breakfast.

I like the chipped and peeling antique look of this gorgeous hand carved Louis XIV style dresser from the 1930’s (left). It would look lovely in the same room as this carved mirror (left, with top scroll detail depicted at the beginning of this post). Both are available from Karina Gentinetta.

So imagine my surprise (and delight) when I found myself enamored with this coffee and end table set at a local antique store. Even more surprising was that I bought them, even though I vowed I didn't want a coffee table because I felt it would chop up the traffic flow of my living space; not to mention that they are pretty much the opposite of the rest of my furniture.

But wait! there's more . . . the idea is to make these two tables into extra storage for magazines and such.

The tops of these tables are screwed in place. I will remove the tops, add piano style hinges to give them "lifting lids", and add bottoms to them with braces just under the skirting. This will give me about four inches deep of storage. Lots of room to hide all those remote controls out of sight for when company is over.

A little bit of functional French je ne sais quoi in the middle of my living room.

. . . how à propos !

Slow Day for Self Promotion . . .

. . .just an update of some of the projects we've been working on. . ...(I know, I know . . it's been awhile).

First up is this beautiful necklace with a large blueberry quartz teardrop focal bead (left). The facets on the focal bead capture the sunlight quite brilliantly (yes, I know, there's a pun). Or even better, the candlelight as you gaze into his eyes over that romantic dinner you have coming up.

Another one that turned out really well is this green and teal combination (below right). Turquoise, amazonite, pale apple and dark African jade beads mixed with Czech glass. This piece reminds me of the warm ocean on a summer's day. All that's needed is the white sand . . . . and a margarita.

One of my favorite things to do when coming up with new jewelry designs is to lay out all my boxes of beads in my studio. Then I take a small glass mixing bowl and start mixing in beads that I think will go well together. A dash of this one, a pinch of that one. Give it a stir and put it all together.

This also means that none of my pieces end up the same. Which is great, because who wants to see the same necklace on someone else when walking down the street. It's nice to own something that's unique and one-of-a-kind. Warning though: if you don't like receiving compliments, then these pieces aren't for you.

This one (left) features some nice pale moss agate. It has three fantastic carved flower donut-style beads, the center one larger than the other two. Their centers are threaded with very pretty amazonite round beads. Again, I've used Czech glass and Bali silver to accent the focal beads. A very pretty Y shaped drop necklace.

As always, you can find these designs and many others in our online store at http://www.silverbluedesigns.etsy.com/.

I will also be listing a number of beads as I try to make room for new finds (though I maintain that one can never have too many beads . . .just not enough space)

. . . and so a little bit of self promotion never hurt anyone . . . right?

Perfect Petite Pincushions

I’m sure this has happened to many a sewing phenom who’s had one of those magnetic pin holder contraptions. You know, the yellow oval thing that looks like it could double as a soap dish. Nice for keeping the pins in place . . .not so nice when it drops on the floor late at night and all the pins go scattering across the floor along with the cat who was dozing so nicely under the sewing table. So I have reverted back to a traditional stuffed fabric pincushion.

The uber-common design of a tomato with a funny little strawberry attached was most likely introduced during the Victorian Era. But really . . . a tomato and a strawberry? I mean, the strawberry is kinda cute but the tomato just makes me think of pasta which makes me hungry. According to Tomatoes Are Evil.com, pins were initially stuck in ripe tomatoes all over Europe. The firmness of the skin with the softness of the inner pulp was ideal for keeping the pins in place. When no ripe tomatoes were abound, housewives and seamstresses made red, tomato-looking cushions for their pins. And since tomatoes and strawberries grow well together . . . voila!

Pincushions are typically filled tightly with stuffing so that the pins are held rigidly in place once poked into the fabric. Traditionally, wool roving (un–spun wool) is used in the tomato in order to prevent rust on the pins. The attached strawberry is typically filled with an abrasive such as emery in order to keep the pins clean and sharp.

So in not wanting to stay with the traditional, in my search I came across a couple different takes on the tomatoes-love-strawberries theme. And I must say, these would make pretty additions to any home, sewing phenom or not. I like the idea of the little strawberries in reds, greens and whites by allthingssmall to decorate a holiday tree. Or a trio of little pumpkins by Sea Pinks for a centerpiece at Thanksgiving. And I adore the sunny yellow flowers on denim blue felt by The Daily Pinchusion, while the yummy cupcake design by Smarmy Pants reminds me to smile and find the whimsy when my sewing isn't quite going as planned.

Sharp, clean pins with no rust that don’t fall all over the floor held by beautiful and charming designs . . .? Genius!

Button, Button . . .Who's got a Button?

I have a fascination with buttons. I think it's partly my Oma's fault. My first memories of my intimate introduction to these little treasures are of sitting on the floor in the living room at Oma's house while my mom had coffee. I was given a large glass jar, the kind that dill pickles used to come in. It was filled with buttons of all shapes and sizes. I think the idea was for me to thread the buttons onto string, thus improving concentration and dexterity in a toddler.

However, I had different ideas. Instead, I sorted the buttons. First, I sorted them by color. Then I sorted them by size. I divided them into shank and no-shank; I divided them into two holes versus four. Then I put them all back in the jar and started over.

Today I buy buttons for no reason other than they tickle something inside of me. Usually, crafters buy notions for an intended purpose. I have scores and scores of buttons that I have no idea what I will use them for. For now, they sit in a series of antique Ball blue glass jars on a shelf in my studio. For now, this is their sole purpose.

To just look interesting and hold all kinds of possibilities.

And that's okay by me.

lazy Sundays are meant for . . .

. . . breakfasts with the family.

Sunday mornings are rather slow paced at our place. They usually involve sleeping in until I hear the soft tinkling sound of a teaspoon stirring in a teacup. Regardless of how deep my sleep, believe me, my eyes pop open at that distinctive sound in the upstairs kitchen. This is usually accompanied by the smell of maple bacon. Upstairs, my dad is busy making buttermilk pancakes, fluffy scrambled eggs and the a-fore mentioned maple bacon. My nephew is already seated and waiting at the table. With my mom, the four of us enjoy our weekly “Papa’s Sunday Breakfast”.

After breakfast (in which my nephew has been known to tuck away 8 pancakes, 4 strips of bacon, 3 scrambles eggs and 2 cups of tea . . .he’s 11 and I think BOTH his legs are hollow), mom and I will make our journey to the living room to sit in the bay window and knit and crochet (she knits, I crochet) or take our mugs of tea and a stack of cookbooks out into the garden. We are accompanied by the sound of my nephew practicing his cello and song birds. “Papa” heads downstairs to his chair and to watch the Sunday game.

The busier the work week, the more I enjoy and appreciate my lazy Sunday mornings.

Joseph Clay Arts

I met Joseph Chiang (Jospeh Clay Arts) several years ago when we where placed side-by-side at the St. Thomas Moore craft fair. I was amazed at how intricate and detailed his porcelain pieces were. For example, when he created a mug or a display vase, he included a tiny, perfect ladybug on the handle or on the edge of the vessel. So perfect was the little bug that I had the urge to try and remove it and set it free outside. Ladybugs are his signature, and are added to pieces which represent luck.

Each of his pieces is hand made and a one of a kind design. He uses high-quality porcelain clay and most of the pieces are wheel-thrown with unique shapes. They are waterproof and safe for use. All the pieces are exclusively made with different designs and glaze techniques. After several firing processes and after going through a thorough and careful selection, only the pieces of his highest quality are made available for purchase.

Joseph’s designs and works of art have garnered him a long list of international awards. He was selected for the 2008 Olympic Landscape Sculpture Design. He has won awards in exhibitions in South Africa, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, Australia, Italy, China, Macau and Canada.

Joseph can be found displaying his creations most weekends at the Granville Island Public Market, and at the Circle Craft Christmas Market each year in Vancouver.

G is for Gingerbread . . .

When someone tells me they don’t like gingerbread, I have to stop myself from giving my head a shake and staring at them like they have two heads. Not like gingerbread . . .phish-posh! No such thing! And then I have to consider that they actually mean they don’t like gingerbread cookies . .those hard, often store – bought stale cut outs decorated with rock hard icing and candy for buttons. Which aren’t really gingerbread at all. And real gingerbread isn’t really a bread, but a spiced cake . . . so yeah, I understand the confusion.

True gingerbread is attributed to being invented by the Greeks around 2800 B.C. and was originally thought to be made from breadcrumbs, spices and honey mixed together and formed into individual cakes. Today, ground ginger is always used; along with other spices such as cinnamon and ground cloves. Citrus zest, either lemon or orange can be used and will alter the flavor accordingly.

There are two type of molasses generally used in making gingerbread: Fancy or Cooking. Fancy molasses comes from the first boiling of the sugar cane and is lighter not only in colour but also in flavor. Dark or “Blackstrap” molasses results from the second (or sometimes third) boiling and is more condensed, giving it a more robust and deeper flavor. Cooking molasses is a blend of Fancy and Blackstrap molasses. In addition, molasses are specified as either “sulphured” or “unsulphured”, depending on whether or not sulphur dioxide was used during the processing.

The gingerbread that I make for make family and friends is a soft, moist snacking style cake made with Fancy molasses. You could use Cooking molasses . . . just keep in mind that the flavor will be stronger and you may need to increase the amount of sugar and reduce the spices to accommodate for the more pronounced flavor. This recipe freezes well, so it is great for making ahead and then thawing as needed. You can bake the recipe in the standard 13x9 inch baking pan or be creative in your presentation. Try dividing the batter between individual mini loaf pans, muffin tins, or use a decorative bundt pan. Be sure to adjust your baking time accordingly.

In addition to being a nice treat to snack on, this cake is delicious served as a warm dessert, especially during the fall and winter months. Sometimes I make it with a toffee or caramel sauce, sometimes with an orange cream sauce. Often I will sauté some apple slices in a little butter and brown sugar and pour this over the top, allowing the sauce to seep into the cake. Which of course means vanilla ice cream? Or a dollop of fresh whipped cream. Or both.


Soft Gingerbread Cake
½ cup sugar
½ cup butter, room temperature
½ cup fancy molasses
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1½ tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground cinnamon
½ tsp ground allspice
¾ cup water

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Prepare a 13x9 inch baking pan (or other pans as selected).

In a medium sized bowl, blend together dry ingredients and spices. Set aside.

In a large bowl, cream butter with sugar until light and fluffy. Mix in molasses. Beat in eggs on at a time and mixing well after each addition.

Blend flour mixture into creamed mixture, alternating with water. Gently pour batter into prepared pan(s). Bake @ 375 degrees F for 30 minutes or until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Remove pan from oven. Allow to cool for 20 minutes before serving warm, or cool completely if freezing.

Did someone say CUPCAKES ???

Prepare recipe as above, divide batter into cupcake pan(s) or into muffin tins lined with paper liners (you will get about 18 cupcakes). Once the cupcakes have cooled . . .

Lemon Cream Cheese Frosting

1 package (8 oz) cream cheese, softened
¼ cup butter, room temperature
2 tsp lemon peel, grated
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp vanilla extract
4 cups icing sugar
1-2 tsp milk

In medium bowl, beat cream cheese and butter until smooth. Add in grated lemon peel, cinnamon and vanilla and continue beating until combined. On a low speed, gradually beat in icing sugar, alternating with milk. Only add enough milk until mixture is a spreadable consistency.

Either spread or pipe frosting onto the top of each cupcake. Garnish or decorate with pieces of candied ginger or lemon peel, sparkling sugar, sprinkles (I like just plain white round sprinkles). Or, to be really cheeky, bake miniature gingerbread cookies and stick them in the frosting.

Quick tip: only frost as many cupcakes as you need. Frosted cupcakes in the refrigerator will dry out and who wants dried out cupcakes . . .?


F is for Funnel Cakes . . . .

Okay, so in a previous post I wrote about choux pastry and éclairs. Another way to use choux pastry (and there are many, many uses for choux pastry . . .) is to make Funnel Cakes.

Funnel cake is typically a street food enjoyed at carnivals, state fairs and sporting events, predominantly in the United States. We just don’t have as many carnivals and such here in Canada . . besides, we are pretty loyal to the mini doughnuts.

The origin of funnel cakes is unclear, though they are commonly associated with the Pennsylvania Dutch. Many countries have various adaptations of this treat including Austria (strauben), Finland (tippaleipä), India (jalebi), Iran (zulbia) and Slovenia (flancati). Isn’t it cool how different cultures can have such similar dishes? Smart minds I tell you . . . smart minds.

Funnel cake gets its name from using a (you guessed it) funnel. The batter is poured through the funnel into the hot cooking oil, overlapping in a circular pattern. The dough is then fried until golden brown, removed from the deep fryer and served warm. Usually topping suspects include confectioner’s sugar, cinnamon, jam, Nutella, fresh fruit compote, or a big mess of chocolate sauce and whipping cream.

Funnel cakes can range in size, and usually are between 6” to 9” in diameter. It’s really up to you how big or small you want to make them. But be aware: a 9” funnel cake WITHOUT toppings contains about 675 calories. This means you would only be able to eat 3 of these 9” pieces of fried dough goodness before maxing out on your daily calorie intake.

Funnel Cakes (makes 10, about 6 inches each)
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup water
4 oz. butter
1 cup flour
5 eggs
2 tsp. granulated sugar
pinch of salt

In a large saucepan, boil milk, water, butter, sugar and salt together. Remove from heat. Add flour and mix in until all the flour is incorporated and the dough forms a ball.

Transfer the dough to a large bowl and allow to stand about 3 minutes to cool slightly. Add eggs one at a time and beating after each addition, making sure each egg is completely incorporated into the dough before adding the next one. Continue beating until smooth.

Fit a pastry bag with a #12 round or a similar sized star shaped tip (I like the start shape, as it makes the dough look pretty). If you don’t want to use a pastry bag and want to go with the traditional funnel method, you can still get the pretty shape by inserting the start tip into the bottom of the funnel. Just be sure the tip extends past the opening of the funnel, and that it won’t fall out the bottom and into your oil. Heat about 2 inches of oil in a heavy pan. While the oil is heating, fill the pastry bag. Once the oil is hot, Pipe the dough into the oil, in overlapping rings and coils to form a sort of nest shape. Or, you can zig-zag back and forth in a free-form lattice shape. Really, just have fun with it . . .it’s gonna taste the same regardless of shape. You will most likely have to fry the dough in batches, so have a small plate handy to rest your pastry bag or funnel on between batches.

Allow the dough to cook until golden brown, flipping once. Remove cakes from frying oil and place on paper towels to absorb the excess oil. While still warm, dust with confectioner’s sugar or a mixture of cinnamon and granulated sugar. Repeat until all the dough has been fried. Serve warm.

I like to break mine into pieces and dip into a little side dish of Nutella. Okay, maybe not so little of a side dish.

E is for Éclairs . . .

Mmmm . . .choux pastry, cream and chocolate.

I don’t make these often because my figure does not approve of the calories. Accept by way of adding to the waistline? yes . . .approve? not so much.

The French éclair is thought to have originated in France during the 19th century and quickly gained popularity due to its shape and ease to handle. Some food historians attribute its beginnings to the French chef Antonin Carême (1784 – 1833). The first recorded English – language recipe appears in the Boston Cooking School Cook Book by Mrs. D.A. Lincoln, which was published in 1884.

A traditional éclair is made with choux pastry dough, baked and then filled with a cream of some sort and topped with confectioner’s sugar, icing or chocolate. The dough is piped into an oblong shape with a pastry bag (make the shapes round and they become profiteroles) and baked until crisp on the outside and hollow on the inside. Once cool, the pastry is then either sliced in half or injected (remember, the pastry is hollow inside) with a pastry crème. Most common fillings are a coffee or chocolate (or both . . . making it mocha) pastry crème, though other fillings include vanilla custard, fresh whipped cream or chiboust crème. I’ve also had these filled with pistachio or chestnut custard. The top is either dusted with confectioner’s sugar, or glazed with chocolate. Sometimes the top is iced with caramel, but then the dessert magically morphs into a bâton de Jacob.

Éclair is French for "lightning," though the connection is obscure.

Ingredients (for 20 éclairs):

Éclair Pastry Dough:
2/3 cup milk
2/3 cup water
4 oz. butter
1 cup flour
5 eggs
2 tsp. granulated Sugar
pinch of salt

Preheat oven to 425°F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper or Silpat mats.

In a pot, mix water, milk, butter, sugar, and salt and bring to a boil. Once butter has completely melted, take the pot off the heat and slowly pour in the flour, stirring constantly.

Put the pot back on the heat and continue to work it with a wooden spoon. Continue stirring and kneading with spoon until the dough dries out and stops sticking to the sides of the pot.

Take the pot off the heat (I know, on the heat, off the heat, . . .enough already!) Add the eggs, one at a time, stirring energetically. You must work quickly.

Transfer the dough into a pastry bag fitted with a medium sized round or fluted tip. The size of your tip will determine the size of the éclair . . .bigger tip, bigger éclair. Squeeze out "finger-sized" éclairs onto prepared baking sheet, well-spaced apart to give them room to expand while baking.

Bake for 10 minutes. Then turn oven down to 385°F and bake another 10-12 minutes with the oven door open. Remove from oven and transfer from baking sheet onto cooling rack. Allow to cool completely.

Voilà! Step 1 complete

Chocolate Cream Filling:
6 oz. Unsweetened Baking Chocolate, chopped
1 cup Milk
4 Egg Yolks
1/2 cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 cup Flour

Melt and milk in a pot and allow to mixture to come to a boil. Remove from heat and set aside.

In a bowl, whisk together egg yolks and sugar until it turns pale and light, almost whitens. Slowly add the flour, stirring. Slowly add chocolate and milk, stirring until homogenous (that means well blended).

Return pot to heat and bring mixture to a slow boil, stirring constantly until cream thickens and becomes smooth. Remove pot from heat and allow to cool.

Fit a pastry bag fitted with a long narrow round tip (the elongated narrow tip will allow you to piece the hollow pastry without causing a huge hole in the side. Fill pastry bag with cooled chocolate cream and begin filling the éclairs. Work slowly, you don’t want to have an éclair explosion on your hands. You will begin to feel when the pastry is full. If you don’t want to fill them with a pastry bag, you can cut the éclairs in half and just spoon the cream into the centers like a sandwich.

Et alors! Step 2 is complete.

Chocolate Icing:
5 oz. Unsweetened Chocolate
2 oz. Butter
1/4 cup Water

Melt chocolate with water in a small pot over a low heat. Add butter while whisking. Continue whisking until shiny and smooth.

Remove from heat. Spread a thin layer over each éclair, using an offset spatula or small butter knife. Allow icing to cool and firm on éclairs

Et enfin, c’est fini!

Dare you to eat just one. . . .okay, have one more

D is for Dulce de Leche . . . .

Dulce de leche is a thick, caramel-looking sauce or spread, which is made by slowly heating sweetened milk until it turns a golden brown and the sugar caramelizes. Dulce de leche translated means “sweet from milk”. First appearing in Argentina, it is popular in other Latin American countries, most notably Chile, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Columbia. In Brazil it is known by its Portuguese name doce de leite.

France also has a version called confiture de lait, which the French spread with butter on their morning baguettes . . . which are really the leftover dinner baguettes that have been toasted. Still, extremely yummy.

The most basic recipe calls for slowly simmering milk and sugar, stirring almost constantly, Just as the milk begins to boil, baking soda is added. Much of the water in the milk evaporates and the mix thickens; the end result is usually about a sixth of the volume of the milk used.

Although dulce de leche can be enjoyed simply on its own over toasted bread, it is also used to flavor foods such as candies, cakes, cookies and ice cream. For example, it works as a great middle between oatmeal cookies (a family favourite). A friend of mine enjoys making Banoffee Pie ( . . . and I enjoy eating it). You can also spread a thin layer on a cooled brownie cake and chilling it before spreading with a traditional chocolate frosting so that you end up with “chocolate-duce de leche-chocolate”. So sinful . . . so good.

Dulce de Leche
4 cups milk
1 vanilla bean
4 ½ cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda

In a large saucepan, bring milk to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove from heat and strain through cheesecloth. Return to pan.

Cut vanilla bean in half and scrape the seeds in the milk. Add the bean to the milk. Stir in the sugar and replace the pan on medium-high heat, stirring constantly until the sugar is dissolved. Just as the milk mixture begins to boil, stir in the baking soda. Reduce the heat to medium, stirring constantly until mixture thickens but do not re-incorporate the foam that appears on the top of the mixture. Continue to cook for 1 hour. Remove the vanilla bean after 1 hour and continue to cook until the mixture has reduced to about 1 cup, approximately 1 1/2 to 2 hours. When a wooden spoon drawn through the mixture leaves the bottom of the pan visible, and the mixture is light brown in color, remove the pan from the heat. Strain the mixture through a fine mesh strainer.

Place the pan in an ice bath and stir constantly until the dulce de leche has cooled. Pour into sterile jars, and store in the refrigerator.

True, the process takes awhile, but the results are well worth it. You could search for a recipe that used store bought condensed milk to speed up the process, but the end product is not as nice. A bonus is that dulce de leche can be stored in the refrigerator for up to a month, though it never seems to make it that long in our house.

warm up with . . . .

Gloves and Mittens. Got cold fingers? Chilly weather turning your hands to chapped leather? Here are a few of beautiful examples to restore warmth with style to your hands and keep the moisture in your skin from drying out.

Shown left is a pair of smokey grey cable knit mittens by FairMaidenDesign. I like the chunky-ness of these mitts; they look so warm and perfect for walking in the snow.

I also like these colorful options from Whitton's Mittens. (pink argyle shown right and blue flowers shown below) Made from recycled wool and cashmere sweaters and lined with felt, they are eco-friendly and very whimsical. The button detailing is a nice added touch as well.

If you are needing to keep your hands warm but still want the flexibility and dexterity of being able to use your fingers, then perhaps these fingerless gloves are what you need. I also find that fingerless gloves tend to be more charming and elegant . . . not to mention I adore big chunky rings and often a full glove does not accommodate for this.

Have a gander at these beautiful Victorian inspired lace-up gloves from Zen and Coffee Designs (shown right). The corset-like detailing on these gives the gloves a hint of sex appeal as well.

Not-so-secret-tip: Apply a bit of rich hand cream to your skin before putting your mittens or gloves on. The warmth from your skin inside the mittens will help the moisturizer work more quickly and help it last longer.

So regardless of whether you choose fun and whimsical full mittens or elegant fingerless gloves, these winter warmth accessories are sure to garner you compliments while keeping you toasty.

Stay warm out there!

C is for Cranberries

Baking with cranberries is a great way to celebrate fall. Cranberries are synonymous with harvests, cooler weather and . . . .turkey. Mmmmmm, home made cranberry sauce.

I keep a bag or two of cranberries in the freezer at all times. They are a healthy and great addition to a batch of muffins. Try tossing a cup or so into your favorite banana bread recipe.

Cranberry sauce is a snap to make, and once you have tried making your own without all the added sugars and preservatives, it will replace store bought cranberry sauces on your holiday dinner table.

Cranberry Sauce

3 cups (one bag) fresh or frozen cranberries
¼ cup water
½ cup sugar
¼ cup orange juice
2 whole cinnamon sticks
8 whole cloves

In a large heavy bottomed saucepan, combine cranberries, water and sugar. Cook uncovered over medium heat until cranberries begin to pop. With a potato masher, crush cranberries. Continue cooking until cranberries can be easily mashed. Add cinnamon sticks and whole cloves. Cover and reduce heat to low. Allow to simmer until mixture reaches a thick chutney consistency. If you prefer a sauce that is less thick, add more water to thin sauce.

Remove saucepan from heat. Remove and discard cinnamon sticks and whole cloves. Transfer sauce to a clean serving bowl. Allow to cool for 20 minutes before covering and chilling until ready to serve. Cranberry sauce can be stored in the refrigerator for a week’s time or frozen for later use.

This recipe will make about 3 cups of chutney style sauce. You can opt to remove the seeds and skins from the sauce by pushing the sauce through a fine mesh strainer while still warm and before chilling, but be prepared that this will give you a lot less sauce.

I sometimes double this recipe, which gives enough leftover to make a family favourite:

Cranberry Oatmeal Squares

1 cup flour
1 cup oats
½ cup brown sugar, lightly packed
¼ tsp baking soda
½ cup butter or margarine
1 ½ cup whole berry cranberry sauce
½ cup slivered almonds

In a large bowl, combine flour, oats, brown sugar and baking soda. Using a pastry blender, cut butter into oat mixture. Press half of the oat mixture into a parchment lined 8” square baking pan. Spread pressed mixture with cranberry sauce. Stir slivered almonds into remaining oat mixture. Sprinkle evenly over top of cranberry sauce and lightly pat in place. Bake @ 350 F/ 180 C for 45 minutes or until golden brown. Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan completely. Cut into squares.

These easy to make squares are perfect for lunch boxes, after school snacks or with tea & coffee. Or try them served warm with vanilla ice cream. Reminiscent of a fruit crisp, these squares don’t last too long each time I make them . . .especially when “Papa” comes to visit.

Happy Baking . . .

B is for Brioche

Buttery, warm, melt in the mouth brioche. There are two places I know to get really good brioche. One is at a bakery around the corner from the bed & breakfast I stayed at just outside of Paris. The other is if I am lucky enough to be in the pastry kitchen at Cin Cin Ristorante in Vancouver when Thierry Busset is baking his brioche(yes, a true Frenchman in an Italian kitchen !) Note: Thierry will be opening his own atelier style pastry and chocolate shop called simply "Thierry" on Alberni Street in Vancouver soon . . very soon.

Brioche is a highly enriched French bread, whose high egg and butter content give it a rich and tender crumb. It has a dark, golden, and flaky crust from an egg wash applied after proofing (rising). Brioche à tête is perhaps the most classically recognized form. This style of brioche is formed and baked in a fluted round, flared tin; a large ball of dough is placed on the bottom, topped with a smaller ball of dough to form the head (tête).

Brioche dough contains flour, eggs, butter, milk, yeast, salt, and sometimes some sugar. Usual recipes have a flour:butter ratio of about 2:1; when the flour:butter ratio is closer to 5:4, it may be called La Pâte à brioche mousseline or Brioche Mousseline or Rich Man's Brioche because the higher butter ratio results in a richer brioche.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his autobiography Confessions (completed in 1769 but published after his death in 1782), relates that "a great princess" is said to have advised with regard to peasants who had no bread, "Qu'ils mangent de la brioche". This saying is commonly (and inaccurately) translated as "Let them eat cake" and attributed to Queen Marie-Antoinette, wife of Louis XVI.

Brioche à Tête
(from Jacques Pepin's Complete Techniques, 2001)
1/2 tsp. sugar
1/4 c. lukewarm water
1 pkg. dry active yeast
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
4 large eggs
2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/2 tsp. salt

In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, water, and yeast. Let stand undisturbed for 5 minutes to froth and double in size.

In a large bowl, cream butter with salt. Add eggs. Stir in flour Place the remaining ingredients in the bowl of an electric mixer. Using the paddle attachment, start mixing on low, adding the yeast mixture slowly. When all the ingredients hold together, scrape the sides and bottom of the bowl. Mix at medium speed for 5 minutes. The dough should be well blended, and elastic, velvety, and hold into a lump around the beater.

Remove the dough from the mixer bowl and place the dough in a large greased bowl. Cover with a towel and allow to rise in a warm, draft-free place until doubled in size(about 2 hours).

Gently punch down dough. Generously butter large brioche mold or several smaller individual molds (which I enjoy making, they are so pretty piled in a basket on the breakfast table). For the large mold, separate a piece of the dough about the size of an orange. Place the remaining dough in the mold so that no seams are showing and you have a nice smooth surface. Using your fist, make an indentation in the center of the dough. Shape reserved dough into a smoothball and place in the indentation to form the “tête”. Press down gently to secure pieces of dough together. For smaller molds, divide dough into portions equal to number of pans, remembering to also form smaller balls to make the top knobs or “tête”.

Let the brioches rise in a warm, draft-free place for another 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Preheat your oven to 400 F, and brush tops of brioches with an egg wash (1 egg, beaten). Bake for approximately 25 minutes for a large, single brioche and adjust the baking time to less for the smaller portions. They should be golden brown on the outside. Allow to cool ten minutes before removing from molds.

These are best the day of, when still warm. They are already very buttery, so a little jam or marmalade is all that is needed. They will also keep in an air-tight container for 3-4 days.

Mmmm, so buttery, melt-in-your-mouth good, and comforting on a cold October day like today.

A is for Apples

In this case . . . Apple Pie. The other day my family and I were planning an upcoming meal and we got to talking about comfort foods; those foods that either remind you of your home or the foods that seem to wrap you in a warm embrace and chase away any hint of a bad day. One of the first dishes mentioned was Apple Pie; warm apple pie spiced with cinnamon and a pinch of cloves and nutmeg and made perfect with a generous scoop of vanilla bean ice cream or a large dollop of fresh whipped cream.

My mom taught me to make apple pie. Or rather, she taught me the science part of making apple pie, which is in the crust. She taught me the secret to a great apple pie is not actually in the apples (though these are important . . . more about these later), but in the pastry crust. Specifically, it’s about proportions; too much fat and the crust will be too heavy, too little and it will fall apart. In our family we have routinely used the recipe from the back of the Crisco package. It is easily and successfully doubled if needed - perfect for double crusts or for freezing half the recipe for another day. Here is a video on how to make the perfect pie crust.

Back to those apples. From experience, it is best to use a firmer baking apple else the apples will cook down too much and you will end up with an apple “sauce” pie. For this reason, I choose either Braeburn, Granny Smith or Gala apples. These are best used when they are fresh and firm, as this is when their pectin will lend to a more successful filling as the pie cools; too little pectin and the filling remains runny. For a more interesting taste, you could try mixing more than one type of apple, as long as their firmness is the same so that all the apple pieces will cook evenly.

Apples and cheese are a great combination and often I will include slices of sharp cheddar in my apple pie. This is common in a number of American recipes, and my Canadian friends look puzzled when I describe this addition. That is, until they try it and then . . ah hah! . . . they understand.

Below is my family recipe for Apple Cheddar Pie:

8 cups peeled, cored and sliced baking apples, preferably Braeburn, Granny Smith or Gala
½ cup all purpose flour
½ cup sugar
1 tsp ground cinnamon
¼ tsp ground nutmeg
¼ tsp ground cloves
½ cup raisins (optional)
8 slices sharp cheddar cheese (not processed slices)
1 egg yolk, beaten
1 double crust for 10” pie, rolled out and ready to use

Place one layer of pastry dough into 10” pie plate. Cover with moist tea towel so that it won’t dry out. Set second pastry layer aside. This will be the top.

In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, spices and raisins. Add sliced apples and toss to coat. Arrange apples with spice mixture in unbaked pie shell. Place slices of cheddar cheese in a single layer over apples. Cover with second pastry layer. Trim, seal and crimp edges as shown in the above photo. With a sharp knife, cut decorative slits into the top pastry to allow for steam to rise. Brush pastry with beaten egg yolk.

Fold lengths of aluminum foil into strips about 3 inches wide. Gently wrap crimped edges of pastry dough with foil strips. This will prevent the pastry edges from burning.

Place pie in center of a 425F / 220C oven and bake for 20 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350F/175C and continue baking for 30 more minutes. Remove aluminum strips and bake a final 10 minutes.

Remove hot pie from oven and allow to stand and cool for at least 30 minutes before slicing. This will allow for the pie to start to set; cut too soon and the filling will still be runny and escape out of the crust. Serve warm with vanilla bean ice cream or fresh whipped cream.

Warm apple pie with hot tea on a cold day or just when you are feeling a little out of sorts is a great way to give yourself a little comfort and lift your spirits.(it is also a perfect way to cheer up a grumpy spouse or to earn a “Get Out of Jail Free” pass).