Saturday, December 31, 2011

I Love Food But I Love People More



I love food but I love people more.

For us, 2012 will be the beginning of a new normal. This year we have been touched by loss, as have people with connections to us - some very, very special.

When our dear loved ones leave us, they change lives. With 2011 hours away from drawing to a close, I reflect on the size of their wave.

To all of you facing new normals, our heartfelt wishes for good things ahead in 2012.

***

REST IN PEACE

Margaret - March 26
Minerva - March 27
Bryan - March 31
Ursula - April 25
Leona - May 3
Gary - May 19
Ruth - August 8
Willie - August 12
Brian - August 22
Lou - October 8
Donald Robert - October 14
Mary Jane - October 17
Donald Grant - November 9
Betty - December 25

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Vanillekranse - Denmark's Christmas Wreath Cookie



If only one cookie is made in Danish homes at Christmas time it would likely be vanillekranse. (The English would say vanillakranse. I have also seen it written as vaniljekranse.) Pronunciation is always a challenge for young children. As such, we just took it upon ourselves to use our own pet name, 'hole cookies'. (Or would that be 'whole cookies'?)

When we were just wee, I remember my mother making so many Christmas cookies that she kept them in large cherry pails. This was one of those cookies that was made en masse. I would only be guessing, as a small child's sense of perspective is often grander than reality, but I would say that she made at least 4 batches of vanillekranse. After all, it was my father's favourite.

As it was in many homes, my mother took on the leadership role of creating the spirit of Christmas in ours. The month of December was brimming with anticipation as we all did our part to prepare and develop the feeling of 'hygge'.

There was the trip to the back woods to find the perfect spruce tree. She had final say before it was cut down and hauled home on the toboggan. She picked out the ornaments, many of them home-crafted with her supervision.

The collection of Christmas decorations were strategically placed about the home. Some did not survive our small hands or clumsy moves. One St. Nicolas in particularly was almost fully decapitated. But every year he was again tenderly placed out on the shelf with his head readjusted in place, secured only by a small section at the back of his neck.

The Christmas dinner itself had many traditional dishes reserved for special occasions and sometimes just this once a year.

But it was really the steady flow of Christmas baking throughout the year's closing month that had us feeling the special day nearing. That feeling of 'hygge' was easily achieved.

When she passed away, we made a pact to keep the tradition of her beautiful Danish Christmas cookies a part of our celebration time together, each picking our own favourite to make for our day of gathering. My choice was made for me since it was agreed that I would 'inherit' the implement that actually produces the wreath-shaped cookie.

It has been 8 Christmases now that we have been striving for our mother's perfection. I sense that she would be very pleased.




TIPS:

I buy my ammonium carbonate at the Swiss Pastries store at Carlingwood Mall. It comes in a glass test tube. They also sell ammonium bicarbonate in a similar tube. Read the label carefully. Ammonium carbonate is an important ingredient as it is what gives the cookie its crisp snap while allowing the cookie to not be dry. I have also seen the ingredient at middle eastern grocery stores such as the Mid East Food Centre on Belfast Road near St. Laurent Blvd and the Queensway.

If you can't find vanilla pods, use 2 teaspoons of pure extract. In fact make sure the almond extract is also pure. Artificial extracts will not yield the rich flavours that make this cookie so unique. Using a vanilla pod is worth the effort though.

I buy my ground almond at Rainbow Natural Foods on Richmond Road near Britannia. They keep their product refrigerated vs. in the dry bins to maintain its freshness and keep it from going rancid.

If I want to make double the cookies, I still make each batch singularly as not to over handle the dough. When I made two batches this year, I decided to count the cookies. We made 35 dozen.


VANILLEKRANSE

2 vanilla pods
500 grams all-purpose flour
250 grams sugar
125 grams ground almonds
1/2 teaspoon ammonium carbonate
375 grams Butter
2 teaspoons pure almond extract
2 eggs, lightly beaten

Cut the vanilla pod lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the tip of the knife. Put in with a wee bit of the sugar to be used for the recipe to help mix it through the dough and avoid clumping, as it is quite moist.

Measure the flour, sugar, ground almonds and ammonium carbonate. Mix well. Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter until the butter is in the form of very small pebbles. Drizzle the extracts and egg mixture over the dough. Incorporate the wet ingredients. Work the dough with your hands until it forms a ball. If it feels a bit sticky, add just a dusting of flour. If it is too sticky, the cookies won't hold their ridges. Do not overwork the dough. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill for at least an hour.

Use the small star hole in the press plates for the meat grinder.



Put the chilled dough through the grinder and push out a long rope of dough through the small star pattern. Try to keep the dough as chilled as possible, keeping portions in the fridge until you need to refill the hopper. The ridges of the star pattern will stay intact more so when the dough is still chilly. To keep the long rope consistent, the hopper needs to stay reasonably full and you will need to push down on the dough in the hopper to keep forcing the dough into the grinder. Watch your fingers though!

The ropes are then cut into 4" lengths. I create a 'jig' in order to move very quickly with my 4" cuts. It ensures a consistent size and shape of cookie. If you have a piece at the end of the long rope that is much shorter than 4", it goes back into the hopper.



Join the ends to form a wreath. Try to minimize the handling of the rope as you do this. Place on an ungreased baking sheet. (Some prefer to cover their pans with parchment paper.)



(I was thrilled to have my niece helping me this year!)

Bake the cookies at 350ºF for 10-12 minutes or until they are slightly golden. Let them rest and cool on the pan for 5 minutes before removing.

Store in an air tight container. Vanillekranse cookies freeze well.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Coconut Lime Clouds - Holiday issue of LCBO's Food & Drink



A few things drew me to the Coconut Lime Clouds in the Holiday issue of the LCBO Food & Drink magazine. First, I love lime. Second, I love coconut. Third, it is a sweet that can be enjoyed by my party guests with a gluten sensitivity. Full credit to Christopher St. Onge at Food & Drink for yet another beautiful recipe.

Tips:

Bring your eggs to room temperature. Don't miss this important step. It maximizes the volume when beating the eggs.

Make sure to add the sugar gradually to the fluffy whites when beating. If you add it too fast, your eggs will 'fall'.

Be careful not to over beat your egg whites.

Go easy on the cornstarch. Do not pack it when measuring. It helps to keep the meringue 'dry' but you don't want an overwhelming cornstarch taste.

Make sure you have a solid 2 teaspoons of the lime zest. It really gives the cookie zing. The Lee Valley microplane rasp is great for getting the perfect zest.

When the cookies have completed their second hour in the oven with the heat off, continue their cooling on the kitchen counter. Leaving them to cool in the oven will mean further baking (all be it at a very low heat) and will make them more crunchy. (Though, perhaps a texture you are striving for.)

When you serve them on a red plate or a small white plate on a red tablecloth, their subtle lime green will be more pronounced on contrast.



COCONUT LIME CLOUDS
Authored by: Christopher St. Onge, Holiday issue of the LCBO Food & Drink

Yield: 2 dozen cookies


1 cup sweetened coconut

2 teaspoons finely grated lime zest

1/4 cup cornstarch, scant

2 egg whites, room temperature

1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar

1/2 cup superfine sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 200ºF.


In a small mixing bowl, combine coconut, lime zest and cornstarch. Set aside.


In a large bowl, using an electric mixer beat egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy. Gradually add sugar and continue beating until mixture holds stiff peaks. Add vanilla extract and blend briefly to combine.


Fold in coconut mixture by hand.


Drop a scant tablespoonful at a time onto a parchment-lined cookie sheet, allowing 1 inch between each cookie. Bake for 1 hour. Turn oven off and continue baking for an additional hour. Allow to cool completely before removing from parchment.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Bacon Jam Meets The New Nordic Cuisine



For today's mid-morning feast I used my homemade bacon jam in a modern day version of smørrebrød, Denmark's open-faced sandwich. Although there are dozens of very traditional and precise constructions for smørrebrød, I have had a hard time sticking to conventional recipes.

One food blog I read faithfully is Danish Open Sandwiches (Smørrebrød) by Marcus Schioler. It is out of Montreal of all places and showcases many classic recipes of the beautiful things that go into architecting authentic smørrebrød. I am in awe at the food work he has done on the blog in just one year. It really is impressive. And inspiring.

Tending to just go with what's on hand, tastes that I think will work and a look that is attractive, I have done my own 'smørrebrød' thing when I load up layers on a sturdy bread base.

Perhaps my favourite post by Marcus would be a recent one titled New Nordic Open-Faced Sandwiches. Marcus frees me from my guilt of being reckless in my smørrebrød build. In this post, Marcus details the New Nordic Cuisine manifesto and I find out I might be okay. The most important thing to keep in mind though is to source your food locally. Already a mantra in our home, I think I am reasonably safe.

So how did I get to making bacon jam? Bacon jam is not typical Danish fare. You won't find the recipe in the century old Frøken Jensens Kogbog. However, the Danes do love bacon and it often shows up on smørrebrød in some form - the rendered lard as a spread or the crisped bacon as a layer or a topping.

Throughout 2011 I kept hearing the phrase 'bacon jam'. Anything bacon is good, right? But what really is bacon jam? What makes it jam? Is it made with fruit? My curiousity was piqued.

Then I finally tasted it. Two presentations at Savour Stratford's Tasting Tent event incorporated bacon jam into their dishes. Chef Nick Benninger of Nick and Nat's Uptown 21 in his 5 way "Porkapoluza" and Chef Sean Collins & Greg Kuepfer of Pazzo Ristorante as a topper on their arincini balls.

Shortly after that spectacular experience, I was reading that Skillet Street Food's bacon spread was being showcased at Toronto's All The Best Fine Foods where owners are supporters of the local food movement. (Though, interestingly, Skillet Street Food is American.)

But the craze doesn't stop. Since those jarred beauties have been tucked away in my fridge, a fellow food blogger, Kelly Brisson, demonstrated her bacon jam creation on a local morning show. Loblaws grocery chain is also on the bandwagon with their President's Choice Black Label Bacon Marmalade.

My prediction? Expect to see more applications of bacon jam out there in 2012. Perhaps a North American focused condiment for now. Let's see if this trend takes hold around the globe.

May I present my Breakfast Smørrebrød - Bacon Jam meets The New Nordic Cuisine.



BREAKFAST SMØRREBRØD
1 slice of Art-is-in Bakery's Crazy Grain bread
Bacon Jam, spread thickly and to the edge

Scrambled eggs made with scallions and local cream

Salt and pepper
Oven roasted tomato, chopped (I made and froze in October)
Dollop of bacon jam

Kiss of sour cream

Garnish of fresh cilantro, chopped


BACON JAM
Adapted from recipes by Martha Stewart and @Yzhalia

750 gr bacon
2 cooking onions, diced finely
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
1/4 cup maple syrup
3/4 cup port
1 1/2 tablespoons molasses

In a large skillet, render the bacon over medium-high heat. It is easier to do it if the bacon has been cut into chunks first. You want the bacon to be cooked but not crisped. Remove the bacon pieces from the pan and drain on paper towels.

Pour off the the rendered fat. But don't discard. It can be kept in the fridge and used for other purposes. (Wonderful for the preparation for hash browns for example. A Dane will love it as a spread on rye bread.)

Using a tablespoon of the fat, sauté the onions and garlic until the onions are translucent. Add the apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, maple syrup, port and molasses and bring to a boil, deglazing the roasty bits of bacon (the 'fond'). After a few minutes add the bacon.

Pour the bacon stew into a Dutch oven if you have a very low simmer on your cooktop or a slow cooker set to high. Leave uncovered. Cook for approximately 4 hours until the liquid is very sticky and syrupy. It may take less time in the Dutch oven.

When you think it is done, transfer the bacon stew to your food processor and pulse it until you have a consistency that leaves small pieces but is not a purée. If you feel it is too runny, return it to the skillet and bring it to a boil for a few minutes. With the sugars in the mixture, it won't take long to thicken. When you use it, you don't want it to 'run'. It should be the consistency of a 'jam'.

Fill sterilized 125 mL jars to 1/2" from the top. Seal with lids and rings that have been scalded. Keep in the refrigerator for up to a month.

LOCAL SOURCES:

Bacon - Bearbrook Game Meats Inc. purchased at the Ottawa Farmers' Market, Lansdowne Park
Onions - Roots and Shoots Farm, Manotick Station, outside of Ottawa, purchased at the Ottawa Farmers' Market, Lansdowne Park
Garlic - Abbey Hill Farms, Richmond, outside of Ottawa

Crazy Grain Bread - Art-is-in Bakery, Ottawa
Eggs - Bekings Poultry Farm, Oxford Station, outside of Ottawa, found in many specialty grocery stores around Ottawa, including Brian's Butchery
Tomatoes - Waratah Downs Organic Farm, Iroquios, south of Ottawa, purchased at the Main Street Market

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Finskbrød - Denmark's Black Tie Shortbread



Finskbrød is Denmark's version of the Christmas shortbread. One observation of my Scandinavian heritage is that everything tastes better with almonds. So it is no surprise that they have decorated this worldly classic with 'their' signature nut for extra taste and texture.

Like all great shortbreads, finskbrød is particularly light, buttery and ever so tender but firm. They pretty much melt in your mouth. The sugar/ground almond topping adds an extra je ne sais quoi that takes it from semi-formal to black tie. A beautiful food presentation is characteristic of Danish hospitality.

Maybe you have enjoyed many thistle stamped shortbreads over the years. Could this be the Christmas your cookie platter hops over a border or two?

* If you are interested in a variation, this latest recipe from fri.dk is a twist on the classic and has a spot of cognac in the dough. It is also less sweet than the recipe I make. If your Danish is rusty, Google translate does a terrific job. What I like about this recipe is that the almond used for the topping is made from a raw almond with the skin remaining. I think it is a sharp look if you want to go 'upscale rustic'.

FINSKBRØD

COOKIE DOUGH:
500 grams all-purpose flour
350 grams butter, cool but not chilled
125 grams granulated sugar

TOPPING:
1 egg, beaten
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
3 tablespoons ground almonds

Weigh the flour and sugar. Mix together. Cut in the butter until the pieces are very small. Work together with hands until a ball forms.

Wrap the dough and let it rest in the refrigerator for 30 minutes.

Preheat oven to 375ºF.

Roll the dough to a thickness of 1/4".



With cookie cutter or knife, cut dough in 3/4" long strips and then on an angle every 2" to form a diamond shape, technically parallelograms.



Brush on beaten egg. Combine the equal parts ground almond and sugar. Sprinkle the almond/sugar mixture over the cookie dough and make sure all cookies are well covered.



Using a small offset spatula, gently lift each cookie and place on an ungreased baking sheet. They will rise a bit and also spread out a bit, but they can be placed reasonably close together on the cookie sheet.



Bake in 375ºF oven until golden brown. Check them at 10 minutes to see how they are coming along. Rotate the pan 180ºfor the last few minutes. In my oven and with my pans I find 12 minutes works well.

TIPS:
  • Use fresh butter. This is critical. My favourite butter is Lactantia. When I buy it, I store the extra bricks in the freezer until I need it in order to preserve its freshness.
  • Use salted butter for this recipe. Unsalted butter will leave a bland taste. Typically in baking you use salted butter unless noted. The balance of salt in the Lactantia butter is to my taste.
  • Roll the dough between two sheets of wax paper. This way you avoid adding more flour to the dough and throwing off the balance of the rich buttery taste. (I push in the edges to re-form them because they will split apart during rolling.)
  • Egg wash the cookies and sprinkle the almond/sugar mixture BEFORE they are placed on the pan. Not only is it faster, this minimizes the mess on the pan and potential over baking of many small sugary nutty crumbs. A smell I don't want permeating into the cookies.
  • Cut the diamond shapes before putting on the topping. This allows you to pull away the imperfect pieces of dough at the edges so that the extra dough it can rolled again and not wasted.
  • Make sure to use fresh nuts. I buy my ground almonds at Rainbow Natural Foods, Inc. here in Ottawa (Lincoln Fields). They store their ground almond in a refrigeration unit. I do the same at home.
  • DIRTY FAMILY SECRET: If you use these cookies in a baking contest at work, always test them before sharing! No one should ever taste a flawed finskbrød. Consult an 'expert' if in doubt. ;-) You never want to run the risk of losing your job.
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