True story: Poppin’ Caps

I thought I was going to die that night. That long, lonely stretch of highway between the airport and home seemed especially desolate in mid-winter’s chill; small white wooden crosses scattered roadside serving as silent sentinels, reminders that some didn’t make it home.
With freezing temperatures and the chance of black ice, I was completely focused on the road, traveling well below the speed limit, and watching for the deer that occasionally leapt out. On the left, just across the median, I could see the moon shining on Miller Lake’s icy surface. On the right, up the embankment, the silhouette of the trees against the inky sky.
I had just passed my exit sign, and was starting to relax, when I heard the first shot–an ear-splitting crack that ruptured the silence and ignited nerve endings. Before I had time to react, a rapid-fire pop, pop, popping. I couldn’t think straight, couldn’t figure out what was happening–who was shooting at me? And where from? Were they deer jackers? Was it some kind of sick joke? Jumbled thoughts flashed through my mind. I forced my attention back to the road, not daring to look to the side, just trying to get off the highway, white-knuckling the SUV’s steering wheel and feeling my shoulders pull together with tension. Turning off the highway, leaving the shots behind, I pulled on to the shoulder to take a deep breath. Prying my fingers from the wheel, feeling my heartbeat starting to slow, and then, again–another deafening bang, right beside me. I ducked down below the window level, covering my head as the volley continued. It seemed like hours, but was only seconds before the popping slowed, til finally, silence.
Again the thoughts filled my head so fast I could hardly process them, and finally a bit of reasoning and sense began to prevail. If someone had been shooting at me, they couldn’t have caught up and done it again, there’s no side road, and the shoulder where I pulled over was well lit. Whatever it was, it wasn’t as bad as I thought, surely.
By now my hands had stopped shaking and I slowly got out of the truck. I looked around, somewhat composed, and began to check: tires, okay. Windows, okay. Bumper, okay. I lifted up the truck’s rear gate and the dome light revealed the truth.

I had been terrorized by root beer. A case of pop, left in the back of the truck, had frozen and refrozen, and the “gunshots” were the tops of the cans blowing off. Now the barrage of “artillery” was slowly melting down the back seat, the sides, the cargo floor. I set about clearing most of the slush out before it melted too much, weak with relief and laughing at my own foolishness (oh come on, you would’ve thought the same!)

I was unloading groceries the other night, and brought everything inside except a case of root beer. As I unpacked the food and put it away, I thought that the pop would be fine til the next day–and then I remembered this story, and despite the fact it is summer, I went out and brought in the pop. No need to take unnecessary chances.

Aside from gastrointestinal issues, have you ever had cause to think your food was trying to kill you?

Sunday Small Bites

A weekly roundup of tasty tidbits for your eatertainment!

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When I set about writing A Real Newfoundland Scoff, my most personal project, I had no idea of how it would be received. I have been amazed and humbled by the interest and support in the book, and so many folks had asked about a getting a signed copy that I ordered a stock from my publisher, in order to send those out direct and fulfill these requests.
A Real Newfoundland Scoff is available on the East Coast in multiple outlets including Chapters, and online via Amazon.ca, but I do have a couple of copies left if you would like a signed one. Email me: liz (at) foodcritic (dot) ca for details.
And thank you, so much, for that continued interest. Why don’t you all come over for dinner? I’ll cook!

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Bath snacks! Long-suffering chronic insomniacs like myself know the benefits of a warm bath; it’s relaxing, soothing, cleansing, and aromatherapeudic with the right potions and lotions.
My late night soak typically involves a bottle of water and a granola bar, with iPhone entertainment. Tonight, however, I indulged in a cup of mango lassi, leftover from last night’s Indian feast, and a chocolate bar from the Newfoundland Chocolate Company. Oh Me Nerves, in fact.
My favourite tub viewing is River Monsters episodes (“I’m Jeremy Wade, biologist and extreme angler…”), although I’ve taken to listening to Halifax Examiner podcasts. (A must for anyone interested in Halifax news).
Over at the Kitchn, I found an older post on bath snacks, check it out here. Now tell me all about your bath snacks!

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Last night’s dinner guests brought along this beautiful cake lifter. Remember last week I wrote about kitchen gadgets? This is one of those instances where lack of use does not translate to uselessness; this lovely piece of art may never see a piece of cake (that remains to be determined), but will always serve (see what I did there?) as a reminder of our West Coast sojourn. You can see more Victoria-based Spirals artsy pieces here.

Coming up this week: More radical Jackson Martin cupcakes, an off-topic cautionary tale, and a restaurant review.

Taking the (Cup)Cake

The Hangover

The Hangover

As promised in Sunday Small Bites, I’m featuring some of Jackson Martin’s amazing cupcakes. I worked with Jackson a while back, and he turned a penchant for baking and knack for the sweet treats into a culinary career before taking yet another detour; burned out by difficult working conditions and low pay, like many in the industry. But his passion for food still burns bright, and I think you’ll agree there’s nothing ordinary about these creations! Take “the Hangover”, above: Chocolate Guinness cupcake with bacon and pretzel bits, vanilla bean buttercream, and a crushed plain chip garnish. I’d buy into that as a hangover cure–add an Advil and you’re good to go!

Black olive & white chocolate

Black olive & white chocolate

This black & white cupcake is a kalamata olive batter with white chocolate buttercream, and olive “dust” garnish.

Banana Split

Banana Split

The ice cream favourite takes cupcake form: banana chocolate batter, strawberry buttercream, pineapple rum preserve with cherry on top.

The Gobbler

The Gobbler

Dinner and dessert, in one cupcake! The Gobbler is a turkey and gravy cupcake, roasted maple sweet potato buttercream, cranberry sauce garnish. IMG_4558 And the sneak peek from last week: the Chicken Wing cupcake with Dave’s (r) hot sauce, blue cheese buttercream and a fried hot wing for garnish. Jackson provided the recipe in the comments section on Sunday’s post, and I’m reprinting it here in case you missed it. I can’t wait to try it! I’ll continue to feature Jackson’s work, and if you’d like a recipe or want to share your own whacky-doo creations, we’d love to hear from you! Jackson swears the best blue cheese for this recipe is the Dragon’s Breath Blue from Halifax’s That Dutchman’s Farm, and I am inclined to agree. Chicken Wing Cupcake Cupcake: 2 ¼ c all-purpose flour 1 ½ c white sugar ½ c shortening (I used butter flavoured) 1 ¼ c 2% milk 3 ½ tsp. baking powder 1 tsp. salt 1 tsp. vanilla extract 3 eggs Dave’s hot sauce (to taste) Beat eggs, shortening, and white sugar together until frothy/ thick. Sift together all dried ingredients (flour,baking powder, and salt) , and mix together all wet ingredients (milk, and vanilla). Add (fold in) dry and wet ingredients to the egg mixture; alternating between the two. Make sure to scrape down sides of bowl/ mixer often. Fold in Dave’s hot sauce to desired “heat”; remember that the heat from the hot sauce will intensify a bit during the baking process. Bake at 350c until done; springs back on the top after being touched (about 10-ish mins). Blue Cheese Buttercream: ½ c unsalted butter, room temperature 3 c powdered sugar Pinch salt ¼ c blue cheese (creamy texture is best!) 2-3 tbsp. milk Beat the butter on high speed for 2-3 minutes until it softens and lightens in colour. Slowly add in powdered sugar and beat until combined. Add salt and blue cheese and slowly add in milk until the frosting is spreading/ piping consistency. (I will add more if it seems too thick.) Top with a drizzle of hot sauce and a little more blue cheese, or a whole chicken wing for a “wow” factor. :) (All photos in this post courtesy & copyright Jackson Martin)

Who Gives a Fig?

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Joyce gives a fig, that’s who! She stopped by the other day to offer some figs from her tree. Fresh figs are a real treat, being so perishable, they tend to be on very limited time offer in markets and when they are available, fairly expensive especially on the East Coast.
To know someone who has a fig tree that actually produces figs? One more delightful thing about Vancouver Island living. I gratefully accepted her generous offer and after stuffing our gullets, set about to make best use of this unexpected gift.

Naughty fig fact: Giving someone “the fig” is a rude gesture, popular during Shakespeare’s time and called the “obscene hand” by early Christians. It involves poking one’s thumb through the V made by one’s index and forefinger, and you can see it in action here.

On to the business at hand. I decided a tart would be in order, something simple that showcased the figs in all their fresh glory. A plain tart shell, sweetened ricotta filling, and the sliced figs should do it.

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Fig-Blueberry Ricotta Tart

1 pre-made frozen pie shell (What? It’s hot out! Don’t judge me!)
2 large egg yolks
1 /8-1 /4 cup white sugar
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 /4 cup vanilla yogurt

fresh figs
bottled blueberries (Joyce brought these as well, bottled in simple syrup)

Bake the shell as per package instructions (unless, of course, you’re making your own which you can certainly do but I’m giving you an easy out here)

Whisk the egg yolks, add sugar until pale yellow. There’s a variance in the amount of sugar because you can determine how sweet you want to the filling to be; if you have especially ripe figs that are already sweet, you may want to add less sugar. Best thing is to add the 1/ 8 cup now, then add more sugar if desired upon tasting the completed filling.

Stir the ricotta cheese and vanilla yogurt into the egg mixture, and taste for sweetness. Add more sugar if desired. Pour the filling into the cooled crust, then bake @350F for 30-35 minutes until filling is set.

Once the tart has cooled, arrange the sliced figs on top, garnish with the blueberries. If you have self-control, you can take your time and make the tart look really spectacular, or you can layer the fig slices on quickly like I did to keep from eating the filling first. (Never bake when you’re hungry).

You can also let loose your artistic side with figs and raspberries, or figs and mandarins, or raspberries and mandarins if you bring home figs from the market and find mould on one because you didn’t check them carefully enough before you paid for them and don’t have time to bring them back before the dinner guests arrive, not that that has happened to me. More than once, anyway.

Sunday Small Bites

A weekly roundup of tasty tidbits for your eatertainment!

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This cupcake is not your typical vanilla cupcake–but then again, neither is it’s creator. I’ll be featuring more from the very talented Jackson Martin in upcoming posts. Yes, that’s a chicken wing on top of a hot sauce cupcake with blue cheese buttercream.

I somehow missed that July 31 was UK’s National Mustard Day; over at the Telegraph, they celebrated with “12 Fascinating Facts About the Condiment”. If you need to know about the Mustard Maker to the Pope (and who doesn’t?) click here.

HuffPost Taste featured the art of Carl Warner. Onions, mushrooms, and salami–not just for pizza! Have a look at his incredible “foodscapes” here.

Global News reporters James Armstrong and Heather Loney confirmed what I’ve suspected all along: that the Canada Food Guide is confusing, difficult to follow, and not long-term sustainable. Now I don’t feel so bad, using that as an excuse to not eat better.
Their report is here.

Spooning

There’s an interesting read over at Zulkey.com in which the contributors chat about “The Dumbest Thing in My Kitchen” (Go have a read, I’ll wait here).

I’m no stranger to ridiculous kitchen gadgets; with the exception of the electric hot dog maker, I’m pretty sure I’ve owned–actually, still have, most of the Zulkey list. Back in cooking school days, we filled our toolboxes with things we were convinced every Great Chef would have: green bean tippers, shrimp deveiners, nutmeg graters, orange zippers, melon ballers, butter curlers, cherry pitters.
Call them dumb, ridiculous or useless, these gadgets tend to to have one thing in common–they are (or were designed as) single-purpose items. And that purpose can generally be accomplished by using something far more versatile, like a knife.
Of course, that’s all relative. If you work in a Black Forest Cake Bakery, you might use a cherry pitter to it’s fullest extent.

Rule of Kitchen Gadgetry: The degree of uselessness increases as its number of designed purposes decreases.

On the other end of the kitchen spectrum are those tools that can be used for many tasks, those invaluable helpers that you can’t live without. Things like a good chef’s knife, a glass measuring cup, a stockpot. One of those staple implements, one that has been around forever, is the wooden spoon. Vikings, Iron Age Celts, ancient Egyptians–since man started hunting, knives have been around followed closely by spoons. (Forks, by comparison, are modern with the first appearing about in Italy around 1100). Early spoons were simple bowls carved from stone and wood, and that same basic design remains intact.

Wooden spoons have a myriad of uses, from stirring soups and sauces, to creaming butter and sugar, to wedging open an oven door–and those of us from a certain generation certainly remember the threat of a swat to the backside with a spoon.
I have my share of wooden spoons, but none mean as much to me as one I was recently gifted. Some of my local Facebook friends came out to my St. John’s book signing (making it one of my favourite book signings ever), and one of those women brought along a gift bag for me. In it were several bottles of her home canning (she called it carrying coals to Newcastle, I called it incredibly generous) and this beautiful wooden spoon.
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It came from across the Pond, and is engraved with a Newfoundland dog, swimming to shore with a child’s arms wrapped around his neck. It represents a bond of friendship, forged over mutual interests, and I will treasure it forever.

Now this spoon will never see the inside of a pot, feel the sizzle of hot butter, or taste a lick of sauce, lest something happen to it. Does that make it useless? Not at all–it’s priceless.
(Jacky’s suggested usage for the theoretical pot-stirring, but I’ll leave that to her-she’s much better at it ;) )

Do you have a useless kitchen gadget story to share? How about a favourite kitchen implement? I’d love to hear about it!

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Heart Baking

IMG_4001In the dark days following the loss of our Newf Fleur, there were rays of light brought by the kindnesses of the folks around us, and one such ray came in the form of a lovely lady named Joyce. Joyce showed up on our doorstep with a couple of pints of local strawberries, and the smell of those fragrant, ripe berries made me hungry for the first time in days.

And, as I find cooking and baking both comforting and therapeutic, I turned my attention to finding a recipe to showcase these beautiful strawberries. It wasn’t hard–strawberries mean shortcake, and I have the perfect scone recipe for the biscuits. Whenever I’m looking for a homestyle baking recipe, I turn to the venerable Company’s Coming title Muffins and More. (Huh–I just realized I’ve probably never made a muffin recipe from this book, it’s full of great loaves, biscuits and coffee cakes)
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I love the cream scone recipe because of the resulting dough: it’s soft, workable, and versatile. In fact, I recalled using it for cinnamon rolls, something I hadn’t made in ages, so I decided I’d make both the scones for the shortcakes, and the cinnamon rolls.

 

Spot the kitty!

Spot the kitty!

THE DOUGH

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Following the recipe, I made two separate batches of dough. Why make two batches instead of just doubling the recipe? Because unlike cooking, baking is based on science, and chemical reactions from ingredients like baking soda and powder; simply doubling a recipe will not necessarily give the same results. So, two batches, because washing the extra bowl is a lot less trouble (not the mention the waste) than having to remake a whole recipe.
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STRAWBERRY SHORTCAKE

I patted down one batch of dough to about a 1″ thickness, and cut out the scones. Now, if you don’t have a biscuit or cookie cutter, the greased rim of an average drinking glass works fine and is about the right size. Tip: whenever you’re cutting out biscuits or scones, start from the middle of the dough and work your circles outwards, there’ll be less waste than if you start on the outside working your way in. Of note: the recipe claims to make 2 dozen scones, but I’ve never been able to get more than 18.
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As the scones begin to cool, break one in half and slather with butter. This is a test scone and is crucial to the process. You may need to test two for quality assurance.

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Assembly is the fun part, because you can either go old-school (scones, berries, cream) or run wild.
The basic East Coast version is simply to split the scone in half horizontally, pile the berries and real whipped cream on the bottom half, cap with the top half, and you’re done.

I wanted mine to be a little more special. I cut the scone into thirds, so I could have an extra tall shortcake. Rummaging in the fridge, I found this delightful jam from PEI that we had been given. It’s one of those jams that’s too nice for just toast, and I’d been looking for a more interesting way to use it.
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The bright orange note of Grand Marnier works well with berries, and so I spread the jam on all layers of the scone. Super sweet berries don’t need much in the way of flavour adjustment; had these been those giant tasteless California strawberries on steroids, I may have tossed them in simple syrup and a touch of liqueur. Or just tossed them, and drank the liqueur. Not an issue with these, fortunately.
As for the whipping cream part, I added a little sugar and vanilla extract. Whipped cream lends itself to all kinds of flavourings: cracked black pepper will add heat to the sweet, or try peppermint extract for complementary taste. If you don’t have strawberries, use a mix of berries, or whatever is in season.
If anyone out there has a signature shortcake, I’d love to hear about it, and possibly have some delivered to my house.

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CINNAMON ROLLS
The first place I worked as a professional cook was in a small hotel that served a continental breakfast; this is where I came up with the idea of using this scone recipe as a basis for a fast lot of cinnamon rolls.

To make these, I rolled the dough out into a rectangle–I forgot to measure it, but it’s not really critical to the recipe. For smaller cinnamon rolls, you’ll want a rectangle that is, from side to side, wide and from top to bottom, short. For bigger rolls, you’ll want a rectangle that is less wide, and taller.
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Once the dough is rolled out, the assembly begins. The basics involve softened butter, cinnamon, and brown sugar. I don’t measure this stuff out, I just eyeball it–this part is not too scientific.
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First, I used a pastry brush to spread the rectangle with softened butter. Over that, a generous dusting of cinnamon, and then a thin layer of brown sugar (you can use golden sugar, like I did in this particular batch). If you like nuts, now’s the time to sprinkle them in here. Crush some walnuts or pecans and just toss them over the sugar.
Then it’s time for the rolling up, into a cylinder shape, by starting at the bottom edge. Now, I’m terrible at giving instructions sometimes, so let’s go to the pictures to see how it’s done:
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Once I have that cylinder, I slice off rolls with a very sharp knife. It’s a good idea to keep a little flour handy; you can dust your knife blade with it after every few cuts to keep things from sticking to the knife. Thicker cuts mean thicker cinnamon rolls, thinner cuts mean, well, thinner cinnamon rolls.
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Onto a cookie sheet, sides touching. I use parchment paper on cookie sheets, it keeps things from sticking and I don’t have to wash the sheet, which is a delightful side bonus.
Bake at 400F until lightly browned–the cooking time depends on how thick the rolls are cut. Best way to test for doneness is to pull one off the sheet when you think it looks done, and taste it. You’ll need to eat the whole thing to make sure it’s cooked all the way through.
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I ate strawberry shortcake and cinnamon rolls for three days before I felt like getting back to “regular” food; and I started this post during that time but couldn’t bring myself to finish it, until now.

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