New Cookbook Coming Soon: The Boreal Feast

Hello all! I’ve been on hiatus from this site for more than a year, and will be again for a few weeks while I finish up writing, editing, proofing and selecting photos for The Boreal Feast, to be published June 21, 2014 by Harbour Publishing. Watch for more news in the coming weeks. In the meantime, imagine a Saturday morning with coffee and Finnish Pulla buns filled with wild blueberry jam. Ooh. Yes, it’s a teaser.

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Low Bush Cranberry Toffee

The Best Toffee in the History of the World

You really won’t believe this toffee: tart, rich and brown-sugary as a good toffee should be, with the added tang of wild low-bush berries from the boreal forest. Thousands swooned over low-bush cranberry toffee at the Yukon Riverside Arts Festival in August of 2011, and last weekend during our book signing at Aroma Borealis in Whitehorse one fellow bought a copy of The Boreal Gourmet on the strength of the toffee alone. When he told me this I said Eek! But it’s not the in the book! And I had to promise to put the recipe up here this weekend. So here you go, my current favourite thing to make with low bush cranberries. (If you can’t find low-bush, you in the unlucky south, try regular store-bought cranberries.)

Berries, butter, brown sugar and cream.

Low Bush Cranberry Toffee

 

1 ½ cups (375 ml) low bush cranberries

½ cup (125 ml) 35 percent cream

3 tbsp (45 ml) butter

1 cup (250 ml) brown sugar

Cook cranberries for five minutes over medium heat, just until the juice starts to appear. (If you’ve taken the berries right from the freezer, add a tablespoon of water just so they don’t scorch. For store-bought cranberries, you may need to add more water.) Remove from heat, strain out the water, blend and press through a sieve. (Use the pulp for muffins, smoothies or mixed into your morning oatmeal.) Combine cranberries in a wide saucepan with cream, butter and sugar and heat to boiling over medium heat. Cook at medium heat, stirring constantly, until the mixture reaches a temperature of 125C on a candy thermometer, or the firm ball stage; this usually takes about 15 minutes. Pour into a buttered 8-inch square pan. Cut into small squares before the toffee has completely cooled. Remove from pan and wrap in waxed paper squares.

Getting to the firm ball stage: a photo gallery

  1) The mixture has just come to the boil over medium heat. Note the foam at the edge of the pot. This will soon disappear.

2) The mixture has been boiling for five minutes, and is a mass of large, rapidly moving bubbles.

3) At this stage, a bit of mixture dropped from a spoon into a glass of cold water breaks apart.

  4) Five minutes later, a drop of mixture holds together.

 5) The same drop removed from the water still holds together and forms a soft ball.

6) Five to seven minutes later, the mixture has darkened in colour until it looks like the famous Brunello di Montalcino, the exquisite Tuscan wine–a deep, browny-red. It has reached the firm ball stage.

 7) Now, a drop of mixture forms a shape rather like a tadpole.

 8) At this stage, when the ball is removed from the water you can roll it between the fingers and it forms a firm ball.

 You are ready to pour the toffee into the pan and let it cool. Remember to cut it while it’s still fairly malleable. Then chill. The toffee is much easier to remove from the pan when it’s cold.

Grocery Club Supper # 4: Pear, Parmesan and Roasted Strawberry Salad, Carrots and Lime-Chili Butter.

Hello Grocery Clubbers. Do you have any produce left from last week, or are you already engrossed in this week’s bag? Perhaps there is a pear or two remaining, or the bottom row of strawberries, and maybe you have not yet gotten to the red lettuce. Did you eat both bags of brand new orange and yellow carrots, so sweet you could almost slice them onto the breakfast granola and cover them with yogurt, or do you have one bag left? If so, please read on, and hear my apologies for the lateness of this post.

A wedding in Abbotsford intervened, a wedding that brought together two large and loving Canadian families, one that originated in the Ukraine, the other in Holland. For three days we feasted and laughed and undertook adventures, adventures that included hammock-buying on Granville Island, roaming the streets of a gated community and swooshing down the powdery slopes of Mount Baker. We made 53 new friends, heartily endorsed the choices of both bride and groom and I am going home with a smart new felt hat. Ooh la la!

This late post, dear produce clubbers, is being tapped out on a laptop enroute to Nanaimo on Vancouver Island. Yes, I am not only late but remiss. There will be no supper this week, you are on your own. Instead I will regale you with tales of oysters and artisanal cheese, of happy lambs and local wines and other culinary excitements yet to be discovered in the wilds of Parksville, where errant members of my family have now relocated.

But here in the meantime are two tardy ideas for your pears, your lettuce, your carrots, your limes and your strawberries. I hope you will find them useful, if not now, sometime soon. Strawberry season is not far. Note to Yukoners: do not roast wild strawberries. They are too precious. Roast instead the hothouse variety, organic or otherwise, whose beauty outlaps their flavour. 

 Pear, Parmesan and Roasted Strawberry Salad

2 Bartlett pears

2 tbsp. (30 ml) birch syrup

1 tbsp. (15 ml) balsamic vinegar

Kosher salt

2 cups (480 ml) whole strawberries

½ head of red leaf lettuce

¼ red onion, sliced thinly

½ cup (125 ml) hazelnuts

Shavings of parmesan cheese

 

Vinaigrette

2 tbsp. (30 ml) balsamic vinegar

6 tbsp. (90 ml) extra virgin olive oil

1 tsp. (5 ml) maple or birch syrup

1 tsp (5 ml) soya sauce

1 clove garlic, crushed

1) Preheat oven to 350 F. Wash and hull the strawberries and slice in half lengthwise. Combine birch syrup and balsamic vinegar, pour over the strawberries and gently toss. Spread the strawberries on a baking sheet. Roast for 30 to 40 minutes, until slightly brown and caramelized at the edges. Remove from oven and cool.

2) Roast the hazelnuts in the same oven for 10 minutes. Remove from oven, cool for 5 minutes then rub together in a tea towel to remove the skins. Not all the skin will come off; no matter.

3) Make the vinaigrette—combine first four ingredients in a jar and shake or whisk until emulsified. Add the crushed garlic and let sit.

4) Cut the pears in half, core and cut each half into six slim slices.

5) Wash and dry the lettuce and lay one large leaf on each of four salad plates. Tear the remainder into bite-sized pieces. Toss with half the vinaigrette.

6) Arrange the pear, onion and strawberries on top of the lettuce and sprinkle with hazelnuts. Drizzle the assembly on each plate with the remaining vinaigrette.

7) Take a vegetable peeler and shave curls of parmesan off the block onto each plate.

Serves four.

Carrots with Lime-Chili Butter

1 lb (454 gr) new yellow and orange carrots

¼ cup (60 ml) butter

Zest and juice of one lime

2 chili peppers, crushed

1) Melt butter in a small saucepan over medium heat and whisk in lime juice, lime zest and crushed chili peppers. Cook for 10 minutes. 

2) Top and tail the carrots, wash in cold water and place in a saucepan. Boil a kettle of water, pour over carrots, bring to the boil over high heat, turn heat to medium low and cook for a scant three minutes. Drain.

3) Arrange carrots in a serving dish and pour lime butter over top. Serve immediately.

Serves four.

 

Strawberry

Grocery Club Supper # 3: Cabbage, Onion and Cheddar Galette

 

What could be more prosaic than a head of cabbage and a bag of onions? The challenge posed by these sturdy, everyday vegetables in this week’s Alpine Bakery grocery bag was to look beyond the usual; the cabbage rolls, the borscht, the coleslaw.

(Though a mango, crimini mushroom, celery and cabbage coleslaw with a cilantro-lime dressing is not a bad option, and would incorporate four of the toothsome items that tumbled out of the bag on Tuesday afternoon.)

I liked this challenge, imagining I was a homesteader nearing the end of the winter with nowt but root vegetables and a few cabbages buried in sand in the cold cellar, and a family heartily sick of both.  

 

The light returneth.

I began the quest with The Harrowsmith Coobook Volume Two, always a good source for elevated supper fare, but found nothing that appealed in this mood of discovery so moved on to Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian and contemplated South Indian Cabbage. Alas, I had no fenugreek, asafetida or curry leaves on hand. Hmm. From South India to Thailand. Not good. The larder was bare of ginger, lime leaves, cilantro and pork. On to Culinaria Russia, a fabulous crimson tome that celebrates the cuisine of Russia from the Ukraine to Georgia to Azerbaijan but I didn’t want to make cabbage rolls, no matter how authentic.

By this time the idea of a pie had taken dim form and hovered in the stratosphere surrounded by question marks, and when that happens there’s nothing for it but to enter the ether and launch a search. I Googled cabbage and onion pie and turned up several rather pedestrian dishes AND different versions of this cabbage and onion galette, which looked very promising indeed.

A galette is basically a floppy pie. Instead of baking the pie in a pie plate you just wrap the filling by folding the pastry over top, leaving a space in the middle to show off the delicious innards and allowing them to brown in a photogenic and yummy way. 

I have fond memories of a turkey and pear galette my mother served on one of my trips home to Southern Ontario, a pie she bought in the tiny bakery in the tiny village of Heathcote in the Beaver Valley, where my youngest brother lives when he’s not living in Hong Kong, as he will for the next five years, and we miss him and my sister-in-law and their two sweet dogs a lot. But they were with me in my kitchen in Whitehorse as I put this recipe together, my mom and my youngest brother and my sister-in-law, and isn’t that what happens when we cook? Our kitchens become peopled with those we have eaten with before and will eat with again, our families and friends and loved ones and passing strangers.

Cabbage, Onion and Cheddar Galette, with fondness

This is a recipe whose flavour depends on the method. Give yourself time to properly caramelize the onions, about 45 minutes. Baking time is about 35 minutes.

The Filling

2 large onions

half a cabbage (you could use red, white or Savoy and the flavour would be slightly different with each one)

1 large clove garlic (I still had some Italian Porcelain from last week)

Olive oil

2 tsp. (10 ml) balsamic vinegar

1 tsp. (5 ml) thyme

1 cup (250 ml) each grated parmesan and grated cheddar cheese

Salt and pepper to taste

(With 2 onions and half a cabbage I had enough filling left over for a super duper focaccia topping. Just reserve about one third each of the cooked cabbage and onions. Refrigerate and use within a couple of days. Try it!)

1. Slice the onions thinly. Heat a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a cast iron frying pan over medium heat and add the onions. Sprinkle with about ½ teaspoon of salt, which will help draw out the moisture. When the onions are translucent, after about 10 minutes, turn the heat to medium low, add the garlic and cook slowly, stirring now and then, until onions are thoroughly brown. Cool.

2. Remove the core from the half cabbage and slice thinly. Heat another 2 tablespoons of oil in another cast iron pan over medium heat and add cabbage. Once it begins to wilt turn heat to medium low, add the thyme and cook for about 20 minutes. Near the end add balsamic vinegar and cook until the aroma loses its sharpness. Cool.

3. Toss the cooled cabbage with the grated parmesan, taste and add salt and pepper as needed.

While the cabbages and onions are cooking, make the pastry.

Pastry

 1 ½ cups (375 ml) all-purpose flour

½ cup (125 ml) cold butter

½ tsp (2.5 ml) salt

¼ cup (60ml) yogurt

1 egg, beaten

1. Cut butter into small pieces. Pulse flour, butter and salt together until butter is the size of dried peas. Add yogurt a tablespoon at a time and pulse after each addition, until the dough clumps into a cohesive lump when you pinch it.

2. Dump the dough onto a piece of parchment paper the size of a baking sheet. Gather it into a ball, knead briefly, cover with another piece of parchment paper and roll the dough into a rough circle about 15 inches in diameter. Don’t worry about the uneven edges, they will add to the charm of the galette.

3. Slide the dough on its sheet of parchment paper onto a baking sheet and chill while the cabbage and onions finish cooking. Bring  the dough out to warm up and become pliable about 10 minutes before you’re ready to spread the filling on top; you want the edges to bend over the filling, not break.

 

Assembly

Preheat the oven to 400F

1. Brush the chilled pastry liberally with the beaten egg.

2. Spread about two thirds of the cabbage over the pastry dough, leaving about three inches of pastry all around.

3. Cover the cabbage with two thirds of the onions. Sprinkle the grated cheddar over top. Reserve the remaining cabbage and onions for focaccia or pizza.

4. Fold the dough over the filling, again not worrying if it looks a bit rough. You should have a nice package with about three inches of exposed filling in the middle.

   

5. Brush the pastry with the remainder of the beaten egg and grate a final bit of parmesan over top.

Bake for 35 minutes, until the pastry is browned and the cheddar is melted and bubbling.

Let sit for about five minutes then slice and serve.

Serves six, as part of a light supper with a green salad and steamed broccoli.

 

Rage, rage against the dying of the light. The trouble with cooking at night is the ghastly conditions for taking photos of your brilliant creations.

GROCERY CLUB SUPPER # 2: Roasted Garlic and Almond Soup & Sweet Potato Stir-Fry with Buttered Apples

 

This Tuesday the Alpine Bakery grocery bag was mostly a selection of the old winter favourites: leeks, garlic, apples, sweet potatoes, Bosc pears that won’t be ready for another few days. Now it’s Thursday night in Whitehorse. The weather has turned steely cold; there’s a strong wind from the south and fine blowing snow, and I’m really glad I don’t have to go anywhere. It’s a perfect night for Roasted Garlic and Almond Soup, some rustic ciabatta and a simple sweet potato and apple get-up.

Years ago when I was reviewing restaurants in Toronto I went to a Spanish place on Avenue Road called La Ina, a restaurant that didn’t last long but that tried hard to do things right. My first meal there started with a roasted garlic and almond soup that was out of this world; it tasted exactly like the smell of roasting nuts. I’ve never had it since, but confronted by big, fat creamy Alpine Bakery garlic cloves, and with a drawer full of organic almonds what was a girl to do? Make the soup!

This potage is super rich, so the lightness of the veg and fruit combo is a nice contrast. And guess what? There was kale in the Alpine bag! So I decided to try kale chips, all the rage a few months ago. They’re great. As good as the beet and yam chips you can find now on the organic shelf at the Super Store. Throw them at the family to buy time while you concoct the soup.  

I must give credit where credit is due: the soup is adapted from Jamie Oliver, the sweet potato from Marc Bittman, and I followed Smitten Kitchen’s recipe for kale chips.

 

Roasted Garlic and Almond Soup

 Extra virgin olive oil

1 leek

3 bulbs garlic (how can you not love a garlic called Italian porcelain?)

1 cup (250 ml) whole almonds, blanched or not (I didn’t blanch them)

4 cups (900 ml) chicken or vegetable stock

1 cup (250 ml) 35 percent cream

2 thick slices ciabatta or other country bread—enough for 2 cups of rough chunks

1 or 2 tsp (5-10ml) balsamic vinegar

1) Preheat oven to 350 F. Whack the garlic bulbs with the blade of a knife to loosen, and separate into individual cloves, skin on. Coat with olive oil and spread on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Spread the almonds on another parchment-lined baking sheet.

 

2) Put both garlic and almonds in the oven. Roast the almonds for 10 minutes and remove. Enjoy how they crackle as they cool down, the best kind of kitchen music. Once they’re cool, grind as fine as you can in a food processor, but don’t make almond butter. 

3) Roast the garlic for 30 minutes in total, or until soft. Remove from oven, let cool, then peel off the skin (Italian porcelain garlic skin peels off easily. Another technique is to squeeze the garlic out of the skin by pinching one end. Fun for the whole family.) Add to the almonds and puree.

4) While almonds and garlic are cooking, slice the leek in circles, white and light green part only, and soak in cold water to loosen any dirt. Drain by lifting the leeks into a strainer. Discard the water, rinse once more, drain and shake dry. Heat 2 tbsp. (30 ml) olive oil in a medium saucepan and sauté leeks over medium heat until they begin to brown.

 

5) Add chicken stock and cream to the leeks and bring to the boil. Watch carefully, it may boil over. Turn heat to low and simmer for 10 minutes.

6) Cut the crusts from the bread (save for bread crumbs), tear into chunks and add to the soup, stirring once or twice.

7) Whisk the almond and garlic puree into the soup. Simmer for another 10 minutes, stirring now and then.

8) Add balsamic vinegar 1 tsp. (5 ml) at a time, tasting as you go. Don’t overdo it. Add salt and pepper to taste, serve, and prepare yourself for accolades.

Makes about 6 cups (1400 ml), enough for four to six.

 

Sweet Potato Stir-fry with Buttered Apples

 Extra virgin olive oil

2 large sweet potatoes (we grocery clubbers are using Garnet Yams today)

1 large apple (that’s the Nicola variety, FYI)

butter

1) Peel the sweet potatoes and grate them. Heat about 1 tbsp. (15 ml) each olive oil and butter in a cast-iron frying pan over medium heat. When the butter is sizzling throw in a few strands of grated potato. If it sizzles fast, the pan is ready. Add all the sweet potato at once, turn heat to medium low and cook the potatoes, stirring often, for about 10 minutes.

 

2) Quarter the apple and remove the core. Slice each quarter thinly lengthwise. Melt about 1 tbsp. (15 ml) butter in a cast-iron pan and arrange apples in the pan. Cook on each side for 5 minutes, or until the apples brown and begin to caramelize. Remove from heat.

3) Pile the sweet potato on a platter and arrange the apple slices over top. Drizzle with a thin stream of maple syrup or birch syrup, but not too much. The beauty of this dish is the simple, clean taste.

Serves four to six.

Kale Chips

Kale—I used 6 leaves but heck do the whole bunch, there will be more next week

Olive oil

Kosher salt to taste

 1) Preheat oven to 300 F. Wash the kale and dry in a tea towel. If you’re a grocery clubber using green curly kale, tear the leaves from the stem; it grows in bite-size pieces. Other kinds of kale can be sliced from the rib and then chopped.

 2) Rub kale with enough olive oil to lightly coat the leaves–1 to 2 tbsp. (15-30 ml.) depending how much kale you’re going with. Sprinkle with Kosher salt, but go easy.

3) Spread kale on a couple of baking sheets. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven, pour into a bowl and serve. 

Okay so kale chips might not be pretty but man they are good. Also an excellent substitute for popcorn for those on a spring cleanse. I am now walking with a bowl of kale chips towards the television to watch an episode of…Downton Abbey! Happy Thursday to all. Stay tuned for next week’s Grocery Club Supper surprise.

 

GROCERY CLUB SUPPER # 1: Pork, Pineapple,Yam and Sweet Pepper Skewers

I belong to an organic grocery club, run by the Alpine Bakery in downtown Whitehorse, Yukon Territory. Every Tuesday club members descend the steps to the cold room at the back of the bakery and look for our name on one of the brown grocery bags arranged on the shelves and along the cement floor.

We never know what we’re going to get in that brown paper bag. (Though it’s a good bet there will be a) squash b) kale or c) chard.) The produce comes from all over North America, depending on what’s available from the suppliers. So in the same bag we might find a pineapple and a few pounds of yams, or heirloom yellow beets and a bundle of beautiful carrots, or a melon, some jalapeno peppers, a few Ambrosia apples and some Vidalia onions, or blood oranges and those crazy baby kiwi fruits that are too sweet and jewel-like to be real.

The Alpine always includes a recipe in the paper bag, along with a list of what we’re taking home with us, which is helpful because honestly sometimes we are completely stymied. I’ve never followed any of those recipes, and I don’t know why. So I thought I’d make up some of my own and post them here, not just for club members but for adventurous souls who come home from the grocery store or the supermarket with some oh-what-the-hell-let’s-try-it combination of fruit and veg and then stare blankly at their harvest spread out upon the kitchen table, wondering what to do next.

So here we go, grocery shoppers, up first…. 

Pork, Pineapple, Yam and Sweet Pepper Skewers

 2 lbs. (900 gr) pork steak or pork chops, de-boned

1 small pineapple

6 small mixed sweet peppers

3 yams

2 tsp. (10 ml) cinnamon

2 tsp. (10 ml) toasted ground cumin

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 2-in (4-cm) piece of ginger root, peeled and minced

25 8-in (16-cm) wooden skewers, soaked in water

 1) Cut pork into 1 ½-in (3-cm) chunks and place in a bowl. Combine the cinnamon, cumin, garlic and ginger root and rub half of the mixture into the meat, with salt and pepper to taste. Cover the bowl and set the meat aside while you prep the vegetables. 

2) Peel the yams and chop into chunks about the same size as the meat. (Have a pot full of water close by to put the yams in while you’re chopping, to stop them from discolouring.)

3) When yams are chopped, drain off the water, cover with fresh cold water, add salt and bring to the boil over high heat. As soon as the water comes to the boil start timing, and cook for no more than four minutes. Remove from heat, drain and plunge into cold water. Drain into a colander, shake and let dry out for a few minutes. Stir in 1/3 of the cinnamon-cumin mix.

 

 4) Top and tail the pineapple and cut in half lengthwise. Remove the tough core with a v-shaped cut. Stand each pineapple half on end and slice off the skin, making sure there are no tough bits or pieces of skin bits left in the flesh. Cut into quarters lengthwise and slice into triangles. Rub the pineapple with 1/3 of cinnamon-cumin mix.

5) Cut peppers in half lengthwise, remove seeds and slice crosswise into chunks. Rub with 1/3 of the cinnamon-cumin mix.

 

6) Thread the pork, pineapple, yam and pepper onto the soaked skewers. Aim for two pieces of each item on every skewer. You might end up with some skewers that are more meat-y at the end. No-one will complain. 

7) Arrange on two baking sheets and cook at 400 F for 20 minutes. Or grill on a barbecue over medium heat for 15 minutes, standing by with a spray bottle of water to put out flames.

Serve with some red currant jelly or spiced yogurt on the side, accompanied by nutty brown rice and sautéed kale tossed in a balsamic vinegar reduction.

Makes about 25 skewers, enough to feed four to six.

 

And there you have it! Watch for the next Grocery Club Supper this week. Hmm, what will the Alpine bring us tomorrow?

 

The Finished Boreal Christmas Cake: Marzipan & Royal Icing

Here are two finished Boreal Christmas Cakes, covered in marzipan and iced with Royal Icing.

Baby Boreal Christmas Cakes. So cute!

I have never before covered a Christmas Cake in marzipan and finished it with Royal Icing. I have never made Royal Icing, that cake-decorating standby that hardens and produces sculputural shapes to make a pastry chef beam with pride. Mastering Royal Icing is a lonely journey for the home cook, my friends, but what is cooking if not a journey into the unknown, ending in ridicule or triumph? The end of the story will soon be revealed, when the cakes are opened and eaten. But first…

…The Marzipan

To make marzipan one must go through a two-staged process; first the almond paste, then the marzipan. (Yes, two stages to bungle.) In the days preceding Christmas I attempted almond paste twice before achieving success. TIP: don’t trust your faulty candy thermometer, but use the familiar soft ball method to judge when the sugar and water syrup is ready. TIP #2: Watch carefully when grinding the almonds and stop before they turn into almond butter—the almonds are ready when the mixture clumps firmly together in the bowl but isn’t yet a smooth paste. The smoothness comes after the ground almonds are beaten into the sugar-water syrup. 

 ***********************************************************************************

Almond paste

4 cups (1 L) blanched almonds (I didn’t blanch the almonds this time. Next time I will.)

2 cups (480 mL) sugar

1 cup (240 mL) water

6 to 8 T (90-120 mL) cognac, orange juice or kirsch

Grind the almonds very fine, stopping just before the oil separates from the nuts and you have almond butter. Mix sugar and water in a saucepan big enough to accommodate all the ingredients, bring to the boil and cook at high heat until the temperature reaches 240F (120C), the “soft ball” stage. Watch carefully once the thermometer registers 220F (110C); heat rises quickly at this point. Or, ignore the thermometer completely and keep testing the mixture for the soft ball stage at about the 20 mintue point.

Cool the syrup to 110F (43C), add the ground almonds and the cognac or other flavouring and stir vigorously until ingredients are creamy. Refrigerate for 12 hours. Dust a flat surface with icing sugar, turn the almond paste out and knead it as you would bread dough, sprinkling icing sugar as needed to keep it from sticking. Stop kneading when the paste becomes easy to handle but still liable to stick to the counter if you let it sit. The almond paste is perfectly useable (and delicious) at this point, for use in stollen or other Christmas treats. Or you can carry on and make marzipan, slightly sweeter and a little more malleable.

Marzipan

2 egg whites

4 cups (1 L) almond paste, at room temperature

½–¾ cups (125 mL–180 mL) icing sugar

Whip egg whites until they hold stiff peaks and mix into almond paste. Sift the sugar into the mixture and mix thoroughly. Sprinkle icing sugar on the counter and knead the marzipan until it is pliable and yet firm enough to hold its shape.

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On Christmas Day, between family visits, I tackled the marzipan and achieved 75% success; 75% because the almond paste was an oilier product than I would have liked (see TIP #2), so the marzipan was oilier too. Not to worry, with the added icing sugar the marizpan was stiff enough to patch into a covering for one small and one large Christmas cake.

 

Marzipan. Not as stiff as it could be, but still workable.

 

 I left the cakes in the fridge overnight so the marzipan would harden, which it did.

Marzipan-covered Christmas cakes, seasoned overnight, ready to be iced.

Today, Boxing Day, we feasted chez Lewis on a brunch of  crepes, latkes, fruit salad, bacon and other delicious Boxing Day things (thank you Lewis!) then came back home for a wrestling match with Royal Icing. First attempt: disaster. I added the icing sugar to the egg whites too fast and spilled about half a cup of cognac into the mix that was already kind of ruined. Pitched it. (Sorry eggs, but we will use the yolks for tomorrow’s Hollandaise.)

This is how the egg whites should look: stiff but not dry.

We went for a ski on the Chadburn Lake trails (groomed!) and I came back refreshed and determined to triumph. I cracked two more eggs and watched the whites slither into the bowl of the heavy duty mixer (yup, no more hand-held nonsense), turned it to speed #12 and whipped the eggs until they were stiff, then added 1/8 tsp (.6ml) cream of tarter and whipped for another 30 seconds. I then added the icing sugar very slowly, ½ cup at a time, at speed # 9, and scraped down the sides of the bowl between each addition. I drizzled in the lemon juice about half-way through, and continued mixing until the icing fell from the beaters into the bowl in a ribbon that held its shape.

 Royal Icing

2 egg whites at room temperature

1/8 tsp (.6 ml) cream of tartar

3 cups (680 ml) sifted icing sugar

2 tbsp (30 ml) lemon juice

Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Add cream of tartar and beat another 30 seconds. Add sifted icing sugar 1/2 cup (125 ml) at a time, scraping down the bowl between additions. Add lemon juice once half the icing sugar is mixed in, then add remaining icing sugar 1/2 cup at a time until all the icing sugar is incorporated and the mixture falls from the lifted beater into the bowl in a ribbon that holds its shape. If the icing is too stiff, slowly add more water or lemon juice until a good spreading consistency is reached; if the icing is too wet, add more sifted icing sugar. Ice cakes quickly, because the icing tends to grow hard fairly fast. (Store leftover icing in a tightly covered bowl, and use to spread over ginger cookies or other Christmas treats.) Let the icing harden on the cake for at least 12 hours before cutting for the classic, hard icing-soft marzipan contrast we know and love. To cut, use a sharp knife dipped in hot water.

Makes about 2 cups of icing.

And this is how the finished Royal Icing should look.

Examine closely: this is how the finished icing looks.

I iced the cakes. Though the finished cakes have a certain homey appeal, I can see there is a cake-decorating course in my future. Now the cakes are in the fridge overnight, to allow the icing to harden into a shell.

The cakes are presents, so I can’t post pictures of the interior until they have been cut by the recipients, and that will be soon. So stay tuned. In the meantime, remember: failed almond paste can be turned into Other Things. But failed Royal Icing is just a mess.

 Oh, so cute.

 

Boreal Christmas Cake from Canada’s North

For years the debate has raged in Canada’s northern territories: who makes the best Christmas cake? Which combination of old-country family tradition and northern improvisation has resulted in the fruitiest, darkest, richest fruit cake northerners can concoct? There have been letters to the editor, there have been contests, there have been recipe exchanges between communities from Kugluktuk to Watson Lake. The result?  Ha! THERE IS NO BEST! And guess what? It doesn’t matter.

 Low bush cranberries lend beautiful colour to the dried fruit mixture

You gather whatever dried fruits and nuts you can from the Riverside Grocery in Whitehorse, from The Northern Store in Inuvik, from the Arctic Ventures store in Iqaluit, from the care packages sent by southern rellies, or from the bulk order you make with your food co-op. And then you find a basic recipe you can believe in, throw in your raisins and apricots, your pineapples and mangoes, add some dried northern berries and then you mix it up. The rest is the madness of art. (Thank you, Henry James.)

 Small and crunchy organic pecans from a supplier in BC

The recipe here is based on Joy of Cooking’s Dark Fruit Cake II. I dried low-bush cranberries for this cake; I dried blueberries we picked last summer, I substituted half a cup of birch syrup for the same amount of brown sugar, and now I’ve joined the ranks of northern Christmas cake-e-teers, drumming up support for my own, made-up version. Here comes the recipe. If you want to read a Christmas cake story, scroll down to the very end. 

Boreal Christmas Cakes, fresh from the oven

Boreal Christmas Cake

(Adapted from Joy of Cooking’s Dark Fruit Cake II)

Though Joy posits this recipe makes 11 lbs. (5 kg. ) fruit cake, in my experience it’s more like about 9 ½ lbs (4.5 kg). Joy suggests two 8-inch (20 cm) tube pans and two 4 ½ x 8 inch (11 cm x 20 cm) loaf pans.

I used 2 shallow, rectangular 6-inch by 4-inch (15 cm x 10 cm) baking dishes, two 9-inch by 6-inch (23 cm x 15 cm) baking dishes and one 6-inch by 3-inch (15 cm x 7.5 cm) souffle dish. This variety lends present-giving options; for single-person households, larger households, and those in which Christmas cake is enjoyed by the few rather than the many.

The selection of pansPrepare the baking pans by buttering them first then cutting parchment paper to fit each dish with an overhang of about two inches. For round pans, cut a bottom circle and strips that reach over top of the sides by an inch.  

Step One: The Dried Fruit

Feel free to mix up the dried fruit combination, and also the spices. My friend Janet detests cloves; you may too. Substitute! Those of you lucky enough to live in the boreal forest, rejoice in the wild, tart,  flavour and deep crimson visual elements lent by the dried low bush cranberries. Those who have access to bog cranberries, especially organic dried bog cranberries, use them liberally.

¾ cup (180 mL) dried wild blueberries

1 ½ cups (375 mL) dried low bush cranberries

1 cup (250 mL) dried mango

2 cups (480 mL) currants

1 ¾ cups (380 ml) mission figs, chopped

2 cups (480 mL) dried apricots, chopped

2 cups (480 mL) Thompson raisins

¾ cup (180 mL crystallized ginger, chopped

1 cup (250 mL) red wine

½ cup (125 mL) brandy or cognac

The night before baking, prepare the dried fruit: Snip or chop the mango, figs, ginger and apricot. (Dip the scissors or knife in hot water periodically to reduce gumminess.)

Combine all the dried fruit, red wine and brandy or cognac in a medium-sized pot and stir well. Place the pot over a burner set at medium heat and cook–from the time the fruits begin to hiss, count five minutes. You want the mixture to heat through but not caramelize. Remove from heat, cover and let sit overnight at room temperature.

Fruit and batter combinedStep Two: The Batter

Wet Ingredients

This is the best Joy of Cooking advice ever, to be followed with total submission: have all ingredients at room temperature.

2 cups (1 lb, 454 gr) butter

1 ½ cups (375 mL) packed brown sugar

½ cup (125 mL) birch syrup

10 eggs, beaten

2 tbsp. (30 mL) vanilla

Cream the butter until fluffy, add sugar and cream until light. Add the birch syrup, eggs and vanilla and beat until thoroughly incorporated.

Dry Ingredients

6 cups (1.5 L) all-purpose flour

2 tsp (10 mL) salt

½ tsp (2.5 mL) baking soda

2 tsp (10 mL) cinnamon

1 tsp (5 mL) nutmeg

½ tsp (2.5 mL) mace

½ tsp (2.5 mL) coriander

½ tsp (2.5 mL) ground cloves

¼ tsp (1.2 mL) cardamom

3 cups chopped pecans

Sift the flour, salt, soda and spices together. Add to the butter and egg mixture, stir, then add the dried fruit and pecans. Mix well, calling on extra muscle, if available. (Hey you, quit chopping that wood/building that studio/carding that musk ox hair into wool and come stir some batter!)

 Chpped pecans, into the mix

Glop the batter into the prepared pans and press into the corners, using the back of your hand as a tool. (The back of the hand is cooler than the palm, and less apt to stick to the batter.)

Pans, glopped full.

If necessary, wet the hands with a bit of water.

Set the oven to 275F (135 C). Arrange two racks in the middle regions of the oven, and disperse the baking pans amongst them.

Time the cooking according to the size of your pans. I found the smaller pans (about ¾ lb (300 gr) of batter) took 45 minutes, the souffle dish (about 1 ½ lb (700 gr) batter) took 90 minutes, and the 9-inch x six-inch (about 2 ¾ lbs (1.3 kg) of batter) took a full two hours.

When the cakes are done, cool in the pan for 20 minutes on a rack then remove from the pans and cool completely, anywhere from two to three hours. (Yes, it’s a long day.)

Douse! Douse! And souse! Souse!

Step Three: The Dousing

Now, you’re ready to douse the cakes with spirits, wrap and store.

Spirits

2 cups (480 mL) good red wine

¾ cup (180 mL) brandy or cognac

Combine wine and brandy or cognac in a measuring cup with a good pouring spout.

Equipment

Cheesecloth

Aluminum Foil

For each cake, cut a double or triple thickness of cheesecloth big enough to wrap the cake like a present. Soak the cheesecloth in the wine and brandy mixture, squeezing out the excess liquid.

Lay a piece of tin foil out on the counter. Place the cheesecloth on the tin foil and the cake on top of the cheesecloth. Prick the cake with a toothpick at regular intervals. Slowly pour a tablespoon of the wine and brandy over top, letting the liquid sink into the cake. Turn the cake over and repeat. Wrap the cake in the cheesecloth, then in the tin foil. Repeat until all the cakes are soused and wrapped. Store in a cool, dark place.

Once a week, repeat the sousing ritual. Carry on with this nonsense for a full year, or stop after six weeks (or in my case, because I was late getting started, three weeks) break out the Christmas Cake, cut into slices and enjoy.

PS: Those of you who like Marzipan and Royal Icing on your Christmas cake, give me a few days and I will provide you with the recipe and method.

Now I must go and eat salmon. Adieu. (For Christmas Cake story, continue scrolling down.)

The cake is having a wee dram, why not you?

Christmas Cake: The Moveable Feast

The first time I made Christmas cake was in December 1981 on the island of Alonissos in Greece. I was 25 and it was my second Christmas away from home. My boyfriend Nikos and I had just bought a new, orange-and-black speckled aluminum wood stove that had an oven. This revolutionized our cooking. Until then we had done everything on a two-burner counter-top propane-fueled stove. We were pretty excited about having an oven. Me in particular. Now I could make Christmas cake.

The Rooftops of Patitiri, with Two Brothers in the distance, and Scanzura out of sight behind. That’s Skyros in the distance.

On the Day of the Night of the Christmas cake I read the Joy of Cooking, made a list and walked down to Patitiri to scour the pantopoleions (“sell-everything” stores) for currants, raisins, apricots, dried figs, almonds, cinnamon, ginger and cloves.

At 4 pm Nikos left for the isle of Scanzoura on a fishing trip with his cousin Yiannis Mavros, who was afraid of ghosts. (Many of the men in Nikos’ family were afraid of ghosts.) He would be gone all night. I got busy: chopped fruit, soaked the fruit in Metaxa, chopped nuts, beat eggs, combined wet ingredients with dry, drank Metaxa, and wrestled with my own ghosts—the ghosts of Christmases past, who were alive and well and havng Christmas without me at our family ski cabin in Ontario.

Oh, how I missed them!

I put the cakes into our new oven and wrote those ghosts some letters, starting with my ex-boyfriend, who still haunted the chambers of my heart. I wrote my mom and dad, I wrote my brothers, I wrote my little sister, reaching out to all of them from my uncertain new life, of which no one approved. I drank Metaxa. I turned the Christmas cakes so they would cook evenly in the uneven heat, which blazed up to 250C or sank down to a sleepy 120C. I drank more Metaxa. I turned the cakes. I wished my family was with me, or I was with them, or we were all together in a combination of our old and new lives.

At 6:30 in the morning Nikos came home, his net bag empty of fish. What happened? Why no fish? “Yiannis saw a light on the island of Sanzoura and became frightened. He was so scared he shook. I couldn’t make him stay.We came home without even throwing down a net. Eight hours and not one fish!” Never mind, I said. Here is a glass of Metaxa. And here are six Christmas cakes. “Bravo Michelaki,”said Nikos.

We gave a cake to Nikos’ sister Evanthea and her kids. They asked, “Michele, could you not have put more nuts and raisins in this cake?” This was a joke, repeated often.

Now I’m in my Whitehorse kitchen, making a Christmas cake again. I do not have Metaxa. I have V.S.O.P Napoleon Five Star brandy. But every time I sluice brandy over the cakes I’m reaching back into that old Alonissos kitchen, back into the kitchen at the ski cabin in southern Ontario, back into the old stories, the old lives and the new lives we’re living now.

And so the doors open to the Museum of Nostalgia. Come in! Please, help yourself to cake.

  House of the kitchen where was baked the Boreal cake

 Good night! Have fun watching This Hour! (Whee! we’re decorating the tree tonight!)

 

 

Easter Goodies

My sister has come back to Whitehorse from Haida Gwaii and has brought with her a dynamite sourdough starter filled with raincoasty, mountainous Haida Gwaii-an microbes.

 

Super starter from Haida GwaiiWe are going to take full advantage of its power and make sourdough hot-cross buns. Here’s the difficulty: I made them last year and they were fabulous, but I cannot find the recipe. However a search through the echoing halls of the interweb has turned up a simple and straightforward version that does not use a kilo of flour or such arcane steps as sautéing the spices in butter. Here’s a pic of last year’s buns, and a link to the recipe we’re experimenting with.

 Last Year’s Model

Other Easter cookery today features a monster turkey from northern Alberta that looks like it has been in a few barnyard brawls.

Bad Bad Leroy BrownWhoa. That’s some bird. We’re going to stuff it (all hands on deck to pull the bread) with my mother’s traditional bread, onion, butter and summer savoury mixture than which I have never tasted better. Highbush cranberry jelly and apple and red currant jelly from the trees and bushes around here will accompany the bird, and for dessert, apple upside down cake with crème fraiche and saffron-rosewater ice cream (either or both, your choice).

Michelle R’s upside down apple cake

I’m really happy my sister is here, living in my basement, and my friend Yvette, visiting from afar. How’s your Easter going?