Archive for the ‘baking’Category

Light Fruitcake

fruitcake 003

People hate fruitcake.  One mention of the word invokes comparisons to doorstops and urban legends about the blocks being passed on over the years.  And with all honesty, my own opinion reflected that of the masses.  It generally wasn’t part of my family’s Christmas tradition, however; it was typically cut into fingers, wrapped in cellophane, stuffed into a paper scroll, and distributed during the Presentation lines at weddings.  This was meant to be the token sharing of the wedding cake.

fruitcakeIt was crumbly, filled with fruit detested by children, and had an unidentifiable chemical taste.  The only reprieve was with the sickly-sweet layer of almond-flavoured frosting on the end.  The seasonal version picked up at the local grocery store offered no real variation on this sad theme; same fruit, same texture, same taste.  The “light” fruitcake was slightly less evil, with maraschino cherries leaching their red dye into a generic pound cake.  It was only more tolerable because it bore no resemblance to the dark cake and was devoid of bitter nuts or dates.  Regardless, I was not a fan of either.

That being said, I don’t know what prompted me to make it.  Actually, that’s not entirely true.  I was seduced by the glossy pages of the Martha Stewart Living, December 2000 issue and her article on fruitcakes.  Always up for a challenge, I tackled the dark cake (making judicial substitutions and swaps) and four weeks later, started a fruitcake revolution.  It was more than edible; it was actually good.  Sworn anti-fruitcakers are now converts, banging down my door every Christmas for the latest variation.  I think it might be all the alcohol, with the macerated fruit acting as nothing more than an elaborate vessel.  But I’m not complaining.

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I generally alternate between a light version and a dark version.  The light is stewed in sherry and is slightly more delicate in flavour and presentation, while the classic dark is soaked in rum and includes the traditional dates and figs.  Both are fairly easy to whip up but do require time (at least a month of weekly liquor dousings) and money (good fruits, nuts and spirits are priced at a premium).  The recipes are also flexible enough to allow for customization and tweaking to whatever your budget and tastebuds allow, since the cake is really nothing more than a bit of cake batter coating masses of fruits and nuts. 

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I’m presenting to you my recipe for the light version of the fruitcake.  Check back next year for the dark.  It might be a little late to make it for this holiday season, but next year, with a jump start, you’ll be sharing it with pride as your recipients eye it suspiciously, then ultimately consume whole slabs…all washed down with a hot cup of tea, of course.

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12 2009

White Chocolate Buttercream with Vanilla Cupcakes

Birthday Cupcake on Birthday Bunnykins

One of my oldest friends (and by old, I mean the length of time we’ve been friends…not age) enjoys a particular kind of cake for her birthday: white cake with blue frosting.  This birthday cake is traditionally prepared by another of our dear friends, Elpoo.  It’s always sweet and yummy and decorated in some clever way.  Here’s a cake she made for my own birthday:


 For this particular festive gathering, however, cupcakes were requested. Well, we all know that I have been elected (appointed?) the designated maker of the cupcakes, so the honour of baking for this occasion fell to me.  My signature cupcake is chocolate with chocolate buttercream frosting.  In a feeble attempt at meeting the white and blue requirements, though, I did my best to whip up a batch of homemade cake batter and a version of my favourite buttercream recipe. 


The cake was…meh.  The recipe was taken directly from a Cooks Illustrated recipe, with a few minor tweaks.  It was simple enough but honestly, a store-bought mix with some delicious additions (sour cream, melted butter, vanilla…mmmmm) would have been better.  I found the crumb slightly tough and a little dry, but I don’t think that was all due to possibly overbaking them.  Regardless, I’ll spare you the recipe.


Our focus instead shall be the frosting.  After all, isn’t a cupcake really nothing more than a vehicle to convey said frosting to mouth?  All silky and buttery and sweet and rich.  Perfection.  For those that enjoy reading about such sweet things, please join me on this educational jaunt into the world of frosting as we explore four tasty variations of buttercreams:

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11 2009

Chocolate Almond Toffee


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I met my BFF while we were in college in Montreal.  For a period, we were inseparable.  We could spend seven hours a day in school, enjoy a fishbowl margarita over happy hour at some pub on the way home, and then phone each other and talk for longer still.  I remember we would watch the best TV show at the time, Twin Peaks, and call each other every single commercial break and discuss:  ‘oh-my-god-can-you-believe-what-just-happened?-I-can’t-believe-she-did-that!-okay-it-started-again-call-you-back-later.’  Seriously.  It was amazing.

So he lives in New York now and I live in Toronto.  He travels a lot for work and he loves sending me little packages gathered from locations like Paris, London, Hong Kong, and Tokyo.  Popular items are sticky notes from Muji (no storefront yet in Toronto) and unfamiliar confections in cryptic packaging.  They’re always much appreciated and treasured.

When I can, I like to return the favour.  Unfortunately, with New York as his hometown and a job that takes him around the world, it’s difficult finding something unique or special.  He does have one weakness, though, and it’s for something that you can only find in Canada:  Laura Secord’s Buttercrunch toffee. 


Laura Secord is a Canadian chocolate shop named, ironically, after an American-born war heroine ingrained in Canadian folklore.  They have 190 shops across Canada and none on U.S. soil.


The image above is taken from the Laura Secord website and pretty much tells you all you need to know about it.  It’s crunchy and chocolaty and nutty and buttery and perfect.  I try to send him a box of it once and again.  My neighbourhood store didn’t always carry it when I wanted to send him some.  But how about actually making the stuff?  This, of course, was a challenge I could not resist; if it was so simple and basic, how hard would it be to recreate?  I mean, home-made should beat store-bought any day, right? 

Unfortunately, and despite all of my culinary savvy and daring-do, candy is my Achilles’ heel.  Anything, actually, that involves a certain amount of alchemy to occur at a precise temperature has defeated me too many times to count.  Even jams tend to alarm me and, never one to trust “the set”, I often dump a crap-load of pectin in the pot to absolutely guarantee I won’t end up with jars of strawberry soup.  Go figure.  And it was because of this handicap that I wasn’t keen on tackling such a seemingly simple treat.

Then wouldn’t you know: hair stylist to the rescue.  My friend, Mark, who works so hard to make my hair look its best had also trained as a chef and is a fellow foodie.  And every Christmas, he delights his loyal customers with a satchel of the most delicious version of buttercrunch toffee that I’ve had.  Yum and yum.  I finally worked up the courage to ask him for the recipe and he passed it along without hesitation. 



The recipe is from the cookbook Spago Chocolate, written by the pastry chef at Wolfgang Puck’s Spago restaurant and certainly has a life of its own in the virtual world.  I apologize for cluttering up the blogosphere with it but couldn’t resist because it was actually a success for me.  I was loyal to the recipe but added some tips in italics throughout.  Trust them.  No shortcuts.  It will make your life (at least for the duration of this recipe) that much easier.

And the verdict?  I didn’t bother coating both sides of the toffee like Laura Secord does, but I rationalized that as a calorie-saving measure.  Even still, it was scrumptious.  And I liked knowing exactly what went into it.  Funnily, we preferred it straight from the freezer…so even that one step towards self-control went out the window.  But it’s not like I’ll be making it every week, right?  Although the holidays are nearly upon us.  And it’s nice to have a sweet little treat handy for an unexpected guest.  Oh, and I do have that block of Callebaut chocolate waiting to be used up.  And don’t I have some more almonds…?

For the recipe, read on… Read the rest of this entry →


11 2009

Apple Butter


Fair Warning: I was not impressed with this Roasted Apple Butter recipe; employ at your own risk. 

I love preserving.  Correction: I love the idea of preserving.  Concentrating fruits to their purest essences, brining carrots and peppers and beans in a sweet and spicy elixir, rows of sparkly jars on the sheves, sharing these jars with friends and family.  It also involves a lot of work, a lot of space, a lot of dirtied pots and pans and stovetops and cabinets, and a lot of produce to produce a very small yield.  I did not let this daunt me, however, and had my intentions set on plucking apples from trees in a rolling orchard and honouring them with a special treatment, not unlike last year’s attempts at Christine Ferber’s delicious recipe for apple compote.

Well, folks, the plans fell through.  We never made it to the apple orchard after all.  We got rained out and colds were running rampant among certain members of the crew so we put the road trip on hold indefinitely.  Instead, I had to get my apple fix at St. Lawrence Market and rely on the kindness of a friend to drive me home with ten pounds of apples.   My apple butter recipe calls for a mix of sweet apples to add complexity, so I elected McIntosh and Northern Spy.



I’m not a big apple snacker.  When I do indulge, I prefer hard, crisp, cold apples…preferably Granny Smith.  I wanted something a little more local, though, and McIntosh apples are deeply rooted in Canadian history dating back to about 1811 when they were discovered on the McIntosh homestead in Dundas, Ontario.   Known for its red and green skin, semi-tart flavour and tender white flesh, it’s been a popular staple in many students’ school lunches because of its smallish size and healthful properties.

Northern Spy apples also come into season a little later and have a similar colouring but are known for its firmer flesh and rich, sweet aromatic flavour.  I thought the two would complement each other in the apple butter…so on with the adventure. 


 This recipe came to me by way of a newish cookbook in my collection: Jam It, Pickle It, Cure It.  The book has some marvelous ideas for making more of your unconventional food items like marshmallows, jerky, cheese, olives, ketchup, etc.  I found these recipes immensely appealing and was eager to try one.  Now I know that apple butter is not a stretch for the home preserver.  In fact, it’s one of the rather simple things to make; one doesn’t need to worry so much about the alchemy that causes fruit to gel and set.  This recipe, however, calls for roasting the peeled-and-quartered apples for a couple of hours and then pureeing them with the additional seasonings.  This was a nice alternative to the traditional stove-top stewing method and is meant to enhance the colour and flavours.  Easy peasy.


Well, it was sort of easy.  But it was also messy.  I nearly destroyed two of my best baking sheets in the process.  I lined them both with foil and gave them a spray of oil to prevent the apples from sticking.  After two hours in the oven, the apples joyfully carmelized and fused to every exposed surface of the pan.  Even the foil couldn’t be removed.  It was a nightmare.  So I scraped off as much of the mush as I could and processed it in the Cuisinart for a good long time.

Glory be: those ten pounds of apples produced a frugal 4.5 jars of sticky, cinnamony, beige spread.  The flavour was fine, but I doubt I’d ever make it again.  I had to use my power steamer to clean the baking sheets and the recipe has left me a tad nervous to try another recipe from the book.  But I’ve already used the apple butter in a vegan banana bread recipe, so good things have come from the experience.


10 2009

Nutty Club

Nutty Club

No, this is not the name of our crafters’ club…although I wouldn’t debate its accuracy.  I thought, considering the name of this foodie blog and all, that it was high time I showed you some crispy bits.  Please enjoy them in their full-coloured glory.  These crunchy candy coralettes (also known as sprinkles, jimmies, candy vermicelli, sugar strands, hundreds-and-thousands, or hagelslag) are from Nutty Club, a Western Canadian company with their head office in Winnipeg.


In operation and “serving Canadians coast to coast” since 1903, I honestly believe they have not changed their branding since probably the 30’s.  Bless them for that.  I think the handless, dancing CAN-D-MAN on the package has worked his way into the collective memories of everyone who spent any time in the Prairies.  The company specializes in confectionary and baking products and I have vivid recollections of both.

The racks of snacks are most often seen in small-town grocery stores, co-ops, and gas stations and contain snack-sized bags of ju jubes, allsorts, scotch mints, humbugs, chicken bones, and midget mix.  Also available were the more savoury items such as peanuts, popcorn and sunflower seeds.  My high school store had one of these racks and my favourite treat was a bag of salt-and-vinegar peanuts smuggled into typing class.  Any type of food was strictly forbidden, so my typing buddy and I were flush with rebellion as we sneakily munched away at the back of class.  In retrospect, it was rather unhygienic, what with the communal Smith-Coronas and all and then licking the sour salt off my fingers.  But hey, it was the early 80’s and times were simple then; no one worried about these things.  Well, apparently the teacher did.


Anyone who’s spent a nanosecond in a Prairie kitchen, especially during a bout of seasonal baking, has probably caught site of the Nutty Club food colouring in their funky bottles (see above).  And no matter how many drops you added to the frosting, your red and green never came out more than pink and mint…not exactly what one hopes for when decorating those Christmas cookies.

Always the avid baker, my grandmother’s basement larder was a veritable treasure trove of Nutty Club baking products: bags of baking ju jubes she liked to put in her carrot cake (a nice alternative to raisins, I must say), the pressed sugar decorations reserved for special occasions, pecan halves, miniature candied fruit slices, and sprinkles and trim-ettes for days.  My grandmother also enjoyed serving Nutty Club “juice” made from appropriately-coloured concentrated syrups to which one added water.  Cherry was a favourite.

So if you’re ever passing through a town west of the Great Lakes, keep an eye out for the dancing CAN-D-MAN, grab a bag of Midget Mix, and participate in our national identity.  If, on the other hand, you’re heading to Paris and see a box of these goodies:


…pick one up for me because these are NOT available here.  I’ll pay you back.


09 2009