November 22, 2009

Only One Month, 27 Days and 775 Hours Until the Open House...

My niece Helina loves Christmas. Just about this time of year, she starts signing off emails with the exact Christmas countdown. Around here, Christmas always comes early: it’s called Liz and Rich’s Annual Holiday Open House. This year will be especially exciting - our first OH with the new kitchen!   

Invitations have been sent; menu planned; servers booked, even the wine is bought, stored and ready to pop open. The cooking marathon officially began this weekend. A bit of prep work done earlier in the week: filling for mini tortiere pies made, dough chilling in the fridge; caramelized onions for baked Brie done and frozen. It’s the only way that a couple of dozen or more hors d’ouevres make it to the sagging buffet table the day of.

This weekend the cooking started in earnest. We tackled the tortiere assembly and make dozens of mini beef wellingtons, a favourite recipe from Food & Wine magazine that first made an appearance at the Open House in 2000.

Mini tortieres are a variation this year - normally made without a "top" and baked in advance, this year I thought I'd try to truly make them like mini pies and freeze them without baking.

Of course it starts with the fabulous Julia dough!

All in all, a great start to the annual cooking countdown.  Dinner was delish too - Asian chicken noodle soup made with frozen homemade stock and chicken; freshly baked pizza and a mini tarte tatin  - the one I made two weeks ago and froze as a bit of an experiment.  It works! The crust isn't nearly as flaky and light but the taste still can't be beat...

November 15, 2009

A Life With No Left Turns

Sometimes the hardest part about being far away from someone is not the lack of communication - the phone gets a good workout - but rather the true lack of connectivity - the kind that comes from seeing touching and smelling someone. 

On a day when it was hard to get a good connection, in every sense of the word, reading this story reminded me of what really matters.  I need to start walking more and making fewer left hand turns.

November 10, 2009

Apple of My Eye

Ah, autumn.  Love the crispy air, the crunchy apples, the cinammon and crimson leaves.  Feels like it's time to turn up the oven and bake bake bake.

I went to the Green Barn Market at the Wychwood Arts Barn this weekend, as I do every Saturday morning.  The veggies on display are getting sparse - no more heirloom tomatoes, scarcely any parsnips, but still lots of kale, carrots, potatoes, onions, pears, the season's last gerbera daisies and ..... apples.  Northern Spy, Russet, Jonagold, Honey Crisp, Ambrosia, Cortland, abundance of apples, all with spots and blemishes and deep orchard goodness.  These aren't your supermarket beauties.  They have heft and weight and skins so taut that the juice flies when you take that first big bite.  Yum. A perfect eating - and baking - buffet.

Of course some of those pretty pinks had to come home with me.

First on the list was my by-now old stand-by - Tarte Tatin.  The apples were so huge that I ended making a regular sized one and a "mini". Experiment time - I've tried feeezing the already cooked and baked tatins.  We'll see what a thaw and reheat does.

Then on to "Apple of Her Eye" Apple Pie, from the New Basics.  My copy is so worn that it's held together with a large rubber band, but I refuse to buy a new copy.  It would take too long to transpose the notes and scribbles beside each recipe tried (don't double the curry for the Curried Zucchini Soup!).  I've chosen Northern Spies - good eating, and excellent baking.  My "Julia" dough is at the ready. 

Now it's just a matter of the therapeutic peeling, dicing and seasoning. 

Roxanne Potvin is rocking in the background (when i put you back together, with my iron and my solder...).  A little bit of cardamom instead of all cinammon.  A bit of tweaking with the tender and forgiving dough. A bit of dough deco, although whether they look like the leaves they're supposed to be or just blobs, I'm not sure.  A bit of a chill and then well wrapped for a deep dive in the freezer. 

So how long do these things bake for when they come out of the freezer rock solid?

Apple of Her Eye Pie
adapted from The New Basics cookbook, by Julee Rosso & Sheila Lukins

Pastry - use Julia Child's fab All-Purpose Pie Dough - Pâte Brisée Fine recipe (see My Life in France post from September 20!)

8 tart apples (I used Northern Spies, but Granny Smiths will do in an out-of-season pinch. I found that 6 Spies was enough)
2 tablespoons lemon juice
4 tablespoons ( ½ stick) unsalted butter, melted
½ cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon sugar
Pinch ground cinammon

1. Prepare Julia's dough. Divide dough into two slightly uneven halves. Wrap both halves, and chill in refrigerator for two hours or overnight (can be frozen for one month as well)

2. Preheat the oven to 350 F.

3. Prepare the filling: Core, halve and peel the apples. Cut them into one inch chunks. Toss with lemon juice as you are chopping to prevent apples from turning brown. Combine chopped apples and melted butter in a large bowl. Add the remaining filling ingredients, and toss until the apples are evenly coated.

4. Roll the smaller portion of chilled dough out on a lightly floured surface to form a 12-inch circle. Transfer to a 10-inch pie plate, and press into the bottom and sides of the plate. Trim the dough, leaving a 1-inch overhang. Reserve excess dough.

5. Roll the larger portion of dough out to form a slightly larger circle.

6. Fill the pie plate with the apple mixture, mounding it slightly. Brush the edge of the bottom crust with water. Then transfer the top crust over the apples, tucking it slightly inside the rim. Trim off any excess, allowing a 1-inch overhang. Seal the edges of the crust together with a fork and crimp decoratively. Trim away any excess dough.

7. Prepare the topping: Mix together the sugar and cinnamon. Prick the top crust with a fork in several places, and cut a small vent in the centre. Brush the top lightly with water and sprinkle with the cinnamon sugar. If you like, cut out shapes, such as leaves or apples, from the dough trimmings and decorate the top crust with them.

8. Bake until the filling is bubbling and the top is golden, 1 ¼ hours.

8 portions

*Because I froze the pie, I didn't do the topping.  When I bake the pie,I think I will use super crunchy big flake sugar instead.

November 04, 2009

A Bite-Sized Moment

Rich always has great stories from China. And even better photos.  He should be the one with the blog.  Here's an excerpt from an email I got this week.

"At the Canton Fair they have "buyers’ lounges" where one (mainly Westerners) can go and relax. They serve some refreshments: coffee, tea, juice, water, cookies, etc.

Amongst the offerings were three kinds of bread; "bread" which was basically your slices of Wonder bread, piled on a plate. Then you had "wheat bread" which was a little bun, like a hockey puck. And then, as the photo shows, you had what was really a hotdog bun, called "France bread" - I think because it kinda, sorta looked like a baguette."

He calls these stories "bite-sized moments" - things that happen in a flash, but over time, create a crazy tapestry of memories.  More and more he is taking his camera with him everywhere, but there are still a few that only live on in his "mind's eye". I still regret the lost photo of the 4'9" little old Chinese lady in the oversized T-shirt that had a silhouette of a rastafarian with "DUDE" superimposed on top...

November 01, 2009

The Witching Hour

It's Halloween, and once again I handed out treats to the kiddies on my own. Rain threatened all day, but miraculously held off, resulting in a blustery, windy kind of evening for trick or treating.  Sixteen kids this year; never many in our neighbourhood.  A perfectly respectable pumpkin carved by moi, complete with batty grin.

Rich, back in HK until late November, is enjoying his sole day off of the week by sitting by the pool.  It's 28C in Hong Kong but the fashionistas have already started wearing their fleece-lined, fur-collared ski vests with chic jeans and boots. 

Funny to speak to someone twice a day, exactly 12 hours apart and million miles away.  Seems it's often around food: me, drinking my morning coffee; he, eating sushi for dinner, but both of us present in that shared moment.

Tonight I was inspired by trailrunner on Gardenweb to try making ciabatta style pizza, and was just tackling the very wet dough when Rich called.  As he drank his morning Starbucks, I struggled to stretch sticky dough onto parchment paper, slide the gooey circle onto a baking stone and cut up toppings.  The dough wasn't wet enough - instead of stretching to nearly the edges of the stone, it shrunk in on itself, protectively yielding a scant 9" circle.

The pizza is baked twice - once to set the crust, and then again with the toppings.  All in all a 20 minute process, just about as long as we chat on these twice daily check-ins.  The pizza was ready after we had hung up the phone, so of course I had to call back and report on the results.

Eye appeal: A

Lightly crusted dough, perfectly melted cheese and just right charred toppings - yum!

Crust: B

Rustic "holey" ciabatta-like appearance, but just too darn thick.  Like a calzone disguised as a pizza.  Gotta get the dough to spread more!

Taste: well, I'm biased :-)

I mean, who would say no to a homemade pizza dinner that looked like that? And it was pretty damn good for a first time out.

Still and all, a great meal alone is ... a lonely thing.  As I eat my solitary meal, I'd trade that perfectly browned crust and my glass of Chianti for any old morsel with Rich.  Sigh.

a carving we will go...

I don't get Halloween. What I mean is the EXCESS of Halloween - the tricked out houses complete with elaborate levitating mummies, the lights, the 15 carved pumpkins...  Much as I like to wield a knife in the kitchen, pumpkins leave me stumped. 

I learmed today that there is such a thing as a "pumpkin saw".  I discovered the pumpkin saw when I was searching online for a fairly simple stencil to use to upgrade my usual gap-toothed pumpkin face.  Now I get it.  One does this:

with this...

Are you kidding me????

I settled for the jack o lantern template with the "batty" grin.


and after!

No saw - just good old fashioned knives. 

Although I have to admit I bought a big inflatable pumpkin - the kind that has a light inside and makes a soft "whooshing" sound as it billows, ungainly and bloated, at the end of the drive...

Now, what was I saying about not getting Halloween?