Monday, March 17, 2014

Happy Birthday

While everyone celebrates St. Patty's
he celebrates his birthday.
Or maybe he doesn't celebrate at all.


But she hasn't forgotten.
Nearly two years later
and the day still reminds her of him.
She wears green,
but she thinks of him.


She composed an email,
Happy birthday!
was all it said.

She discarded the draft
and composed it again
then discarded the draft.

Staring at a blank screen,
she sent her message
through time and space
and hoped he heard her say:

I wish you well.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Quest for the Perfect Hot Chocolate, Round 3

While flipping through the winter section of my favourite seasonal cookbook, Earth to Table, for a dinner recipe, I discovered a recipe for Spiced Hot Chocolate. If I haven't expressed my love for this cookbook enough in the past, let me reiterate it now: I love this cookbook! Not just for the organization by season, but the fact that it was put together by an Ontario chef (and owner of Earth to Table Bread Bar in Hamilton, Ontario*), so the seasonal ingredients are applicable to where I live.

Every recipe I've made from this book so far has been amazing - fresh, local ingredients, complex flavours, delicious results. The only problem is that the recipes aren't always accessible for every day use, which is fine when you want to make something special and put in a little more elbow grease. It's not fine when you're looking for something simple.

The same goes for the hot chocolate recipe. I knew I was going to love it because it uses real ingredients - vanilla bean, cinnamon sticks, a Thai chili pepper for added flavour. But, for that same reason, I'm not sure I want it to be my staple recipe. I mean, who has vanilla bean and Thai chili peppers lying around all the time? (Oddly enough, I did; but that's not always the case, and it could get expensive if this is something I want to make often).

Anyway, the recipe was divine - so simple, yet so flavourful because of the fresh ingredients. I used bittersweet chocolate because I prefer it to milk chocolate, and I only had skim milk, which made the chocolatey flavour a bit too rich. But, the spices were perfect. Just enough sweet, just enough heat. And the flecks of vanilla bean! So good.

I wonder if there can be a happy median - using the idea of this recipe, but with more accessible ingredients. I loved the addition of vanilla, which naturally goes so well with chocolate and is a flavour enhancer. I have a bottle of real vanilla flavouring, which I think would work. And perhaps some dried chili flakes for those times I don't have a real chili pepper. I do still recommend a fattier milk than skim to give the ingredients something to glom on to. But flavour-wise, I think recipe is my favourite so far, with some modifications still needed.

Onward with my quest!

Spiced Hot Chocolate

Makes 6 cups.

Ingredients

  • 6 cups whole milk
  • 2 cinnamon sticks (I broke them in half)
  • 1 vanilla bean, split lengthwise and seeds scraped out
  • 1 Thai chili pepper, halved (leave seeds in for more heat, or remove for less)
  • 10 oz. milk chocolate, chopped (Or other chocolate of your choosing. I used bittersweet.)
  • 2 tbsp. local honey
  • 1 tbsp. ground walnuts}
  • Whipped cream} optional (I opted out for simplicity.)
Instructions


In a saucepan, heat milk, cinnamon sticks, vanilla bean and seeds, and chili pepper over medium heat until bubbles appear around the edges, about 10 minutes. Reduce heat to low and add chocolate and honey; cook, whisking occasionally, until chocolate is melted and honey dissolves, about 3 minutes. Remove from heat.

Strain hot chocolate and discard solids. If chocolate is too thick, thin with a little more milk. Serve in small mugs and offer ground walnuts and whipped cream as garnish, if desired.


*I'm a bit of a fangirl when it comes to "celebrity" chefs, and while Jeff Crump may not have the same celebrity status as those on the Food Network or elsewhere, I was still super excited to finally visit the Earth to Table Bread Bar a few weekends ago when T and I were there to see Varekai - a Cirque du Soleil show. After a few years of falling in love with the recipes and ideology in the cookbook, it was awesome to visit the place where it all began and taste some creations from Chef Crump's kitchen. We were not disappointed! Beer battered brie and bacon jam, porchetta on a bun with grainy mustard and a side kale Caesar salad, and umami beef burger with loaded homemade fries, for the win! I only wish Hamilton was closer, although my waistline is probably glad it's not.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Soup Sunday: Tomato-Basil with Savoury Biscotti

The 2013 Holiday Edition of Food & Drink Magazine had a recipe for Rosemary, Parmesan & Black Pepper Biscotti and I was so intrigued by the idea of a savoury biscotti.

While there are no rules, biscotti is traditionally a hard cookie (hard because it's twice-baked) that you soften by dipping it into a cappuccino, latte or any beverage of your choosing. And the flavour combinations are endless. My manager makes a delicious white chocolate, apricot and almond biscotti, usually at Christmas, that's fabulous.

I didn't think this savoury version of the Italian cookie would pair well with a coffee-based beverage, but I did want to keep the tradition of dipping alive. So I found a simple recipe for tomato-basil soup and made it for my soup Sunday a few weeks ago. Tomato, basil and parmesan go so well together in my books and I though the other flavours would as well. And they did!


I was especially excited to make this biscotti right now because T and I kept our outdoor rosemary plant alive all winter in a planter inside, so I actually had fresh rosemary without having to buy it.

I have no notes for the biscotti. The recipe was simple to follow and make and the flavours were perfect. I'm really excited about the prospect of pairing these cookies with cheese at our 3rd Bi-ennial Wine & Cheese party in a few weeks.

Fresh Tomato Soup

The recipe I used, from my fave cookbook (Better Homes and Gardens) was for 4 side-dish servings, so I doubled the original.

Ingredients

  • 6 medium tomatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 3 cups chicken broth (the original called for water + chicken bouillon granules)
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 12 oz. can tomato paste
  • 2 tbsp. dried basil (original called for 4 tbsp. fresh, but it's winter. It also called for cilantro, which I could live without ever eating)
  • 1 tsp. sugar (I think I opted not to add this, or I might have replaced it with sugar)
  • Few dashes bottled hot pepper sauce (optional)
  • 1/4 cup cream (I added this option as I wanted a creamier soup and happened to have some 18% in the fridge that needed to go away)
Instructions


  1. In a large saucepan, heat oil and fry onions and celery until slightly softened.
  2. Add tomatoes, broth, tomato paste, basil, sugar/honey and hot sauce.
  3. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and simmer, covered, for about 20 minutes or until vegetables are tender.
  4. Place the soup in a blender in batches, as needed, and blend until smooth.
  5. Return soup to saucepan, add cream (if a creamier consistency is desired).
  6. Serve with a pinch of basil (or leaves of fresh basil), if desired. And in my case, savoury biscotti!

T and I enjoyed the flavours in this soup and it was really simple to make. My only qualm was peeling the tomatoes. Not sure if you've ever tried to do this, but it's actually quite difficult and annoying and messy. I'm sure that using fresh did add more flavour to this soup, but seeing that it's winter and the tomatoes aren't local anyway, and to reduce this annoyance, I think I'd consider just using canned tomatoes in the future, unless someone finds me a simpler way to peel tomatoes.


Either way, the soup was great and paired so well with the biscotti. I would highly recommend it with any soup with complementing flavours, a cheese tray, or just a nice, crunchy snack on its own. The great part is that the recipe makes 40 biscotti and you can freeze them in an airtight container for up to 1 month. Just remove them from the freezer 2 hours before serving.

Bon app├ętit!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

My Quest for the Perfect Hot Chocolate Recipe

Around this time last year, I blogged about the hot chocolate recipe I found that blended the rich flavours of chocolate with the spicy flavours of chili and cayenne. T and I have been enjoying my modified version of the spiced hot chocolate for the past year when we have condensed milk lying around (because that's a thing).

My favourite part of this hot chocolate is the addition of spice balanced with the bitter chocolate and the sweet condensed milk. But lately, I've found it to be almost too rich. Also, having to buy condensed milk is annoying because it's expensive (even though I only buy it on sale) and the recipe only uses half of the can, so I always have to store it until I want more.

I know, such a first world problem to have.

Anyway... I do like the flavours of this recipe, so now I'm on a quest to find a recipe that's the perfect blend of ingredients. I don't expect that any one recipe will satisfy my desires; but, my goal is to try several, find the elements I like in each of them, and create my own recipe, that I hope will become a family staple for years to come.

If you'll join me on this quest, I'll start with the original recipes, my modifications and tasting notes (you know, because I'm a hot cocoa sommelier).

Spiced Hot Chocolate

Makes 2 mugs.

 Original
 Carla's Modifications
  •  2 cups skim milk
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 2 oz. semi-sweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. Stevia extract
  • 1/8 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon

  • 2 cups skim milk
  • 1/2 cup condensed milk
  • 2 oz. dark chocolate, coarsely chopped
  • 2 tbsp. cocoa powder
  • 1 tsp. honey
  • 1/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
  • pinch of cayenne



Instructions: Place all ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat and stir until warm and chocolate is melted and blended. For a frothier consistency, whip hot chocolate with an immersion blender or milk whisker (I recommend this step!).

Cook's notes: I used dark chocolate medallions because I prefer the bitter richness of dark compared to semi-sweet. However, I always find that the medallions don't melt well, so if I continue to use dark, they definitely need to be chopped more finely than the instructions suggest. I use honey as the sweetener because I prefer using natural sweeteners and I find the sweetness of honey complements well with the spicy flavours. I found the 1/8 tsp. of chili to not be enough so I upped it to 1/4 tsp. and also added a pinch of cayenne for a bit more spice. The spice balance in my version is perfect, but again, it's too sweet and too rich/thick.

So, I tried a recipe for a similar version, with less rich milk, that I found in the Winter 2014 edition of Food & Drink Magazine

Hot Mexican Chocolate

Makes 4 to 6 medium-sized mugs.

 Original
 Carla's Modifications
  • 3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp. instant coffee granules
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • Pinch ancho chili powder
  • Whipped cream (optional) 

  • 3 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 1/3 cup dark brown sugar
  • 2 tbsp. unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 1 tbsp. instant coffee granules
  • 1/4 tsp. ground nutmeg
  • 3 cups skim milk
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • Pinch chili powder

Instructions: In a saucepan, whisk together chocolate, sugar, cocoa powder, instant coffee and nutmeg with 1 cup of the milk. Add cinnamon sticks (I broke them in half for more flavour as they don't steep long and breaking them always brings out more). Set over medium-low heat and melt chocolate, whisking occasionally, for about 2 minutes or until smooth. Slowly whisk in remaining milk and chili powder; bring to a gentle simmer, whisking often, for about 8 minutes or until steaming and hot. Serve dolloped with whipped cream and a pinch of chili powder or nutmeg, if desired.

Tips: Look for 70% cocoa chocolate bars in the candy aisle of the grocery store. For a spicier version, use the dark chocolate bar infused with chili. For a smoky hit of chili powder, try using chipotle instead of ancho chili powder.

Cook's notes: First of all, this recipe makes too much for two people but halving it didn't work perfectly with some of the measurements (What the heck is half of a 1/3 of a cup? I'm an editor. Seriously.). Second of all, whisk often for 8 minutes?! While 8 minutes isn't that long (I guess), it kind of is for what should be a relatively simple treat, especially since you can't just walk away or it might boil over. And if you've ever had something sweet and sticky boil over, it is the worst to clean up!

But let's talk about some of the positive aspects. The consistency was definitely less rich than the previous recipe as a result of just the one type of milk and, I think, the bittersweet chocolate. I actually really liked the bittersweet chocolate - it's sort of a happy median for me, between semi-sweet and dark - so I might stick with this route. However, I understand why the first recipe adds condensed milk and this one suggests whole milk. There's no fat in skim milk, so there's nothing for the ingredients to latch on to, which results in the mixture being too heterogeneous (look, ma, I remember something from science! I may not be able to math, but I got this!). Also, it gets that gross skin that hot cocoa sometimes gets. And no one wants their hot cocoa to have skin.

I also really enjoyed the addition of instant coffee granules that added a subtle earthy flavour. Also, using cinnamon sticks was definitely superior to using ground cinnamon, but it always is, IMHO.

What I didn't like was the nutmeg (but that's a personal preference), and the brown sugar (which didn't seem to mix well and sort of settled in a clump at the bottom; I'd go back to honey, for sure). The chili powder was fine, but I didn't have ancho chili, so it wasn't spicy enough for my liking. Also, I do not recommend adding any of the powdered ingredients once the drink is transferred to the mug. They just settle at the bottom and you end up with a mouthful of chili powder at the end.

I did like the suggestion in this recipe of using the chocolate already spiced with chili, so that may be next on my quest for the perfect hot chocolate recipe.

Now that I am starting to narrow down the things I like and dislike, I think I have a good start for forming my own recipe.

Onward!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Pizza Friday: Tuna?

My goal with pizza Friday is to re-invent the wheel. I like to find new and strange ways to make pizza instead of the same old same old. So when I recently came across a pizza recipe in the All You Need is Cheese Magazine that included tuna as one of the toppings, I was excited to try it!

Initially, the recipe for Tuna and Fresh Mozzarella Pizza kinda grossed me out, especially because it was canned tuna and not a fresh tuna steak. But, I'm willing to try anything once.

The recipe called for topping naan or pita breads, but I had some dough already in the freezer, so I opted for this instead. I also pre-cooked the peppers and zucchini a bit as the pizza baking time is short and I like my veggie toppings to have a bit of softness to them. Instead of fresh tomatoes, I used sun-dried because I love pesto and sun-dried tomatoes together, and I felt like the pizza needed a bit more flavour since the recipe didn't entail much. And, I skipped the capers purely because I'm just not a huge fan - I find them way too salty.
Pre-cooked pizza.
The end product was surprisingly good. It was still a bit odd eating tuna on a pizza, but the flavours complemented each other well and the pizza was quite filling and moderately healthy (as healthy as a pizza can be). It's not one I'd make every day, and I may try it with fresh tuna instead, but it wasn't bad.


What's the oddest thing you've eaten on a pizza?