Christmas is known for bringing out the ancestral origins in all of us, with every culture celebrating the holidays enjoying their specific holiday foods. Although my parents were born here in Canada, our German heritage was very evident in my mother’s cooking and baking.
One cookie that has been made specifically for holidays for hundreds of years is gingerbread. Across Europe you will find many versions of the spicy cookies in different shapes, colors and textures.
‘Lebkucken’, a traditional German gingerbread was invented by medieval monks in Franeonia, Germany in the 13th century. Prepared in monastery bakeries with ingredients that not only had symbolic religious meaning but were highly prized for their healing properties.
There are a variety of types of lebkucken, each distinguished by slight alterations in ingredients. Most common ingredients include: * honey, flour, sugar and eggs * gingerbread spice mix or ‘Lebkuckengewurz’ * almonds, hazelnuts and/or walnuts * candied lemon and orange peel. The most critical ingredient being the ‘exotic’ spices from all around the world such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, anise, cardamom, coriander and ginger.
Lebkucken can be round, square or rectangular. They can be glazed or not. Sometimes cocoa is mixed in with the dough making it rich and chocolaty. Other times, roasted apple, marzipan or cashews may be mixed in to add different flavors and textures.
‘Elisen lebkucken’ are the highest quality made. They must have at least 25% almonds, hazelnuts and/or walnuts and must contain no more than 10% flour if any. The ‘Nuremberg lebkucken’, baked in the city of Nuremberg, Germany, are known worldwide to be the best. Marzipan is often an ingredient in these gingerbread.
Of course this brings me back to another memory. Some years ago I had the experience of spending some time in the presence of a Dutch baker. At Christmas time, he would bake these incredible Dutch cookies called ‘Speculaas’ that were filled with marzipan and had that glorious similar spice blend. I just loved it and can’t resist making some version of it every Christmas season since.
Today, I’m making a large batch of lebkucken which I’m going to divide. Half of it is going to be made into ‘glazed’ triangles and the other half I want to dip in white chocolate and add a little holly decoration. Should be good!
Preheat oven to 350 F. Spread hazelnuts on a baking sheet & toast until the skins blister, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly, then transfer nuts to a clean kitchen towel & rub together to remove the skins. Cool completely.
In a small bowl, combine almond meal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices & salt. Transfer hazelnuts to a food processor, add walnuts, candied citrus rind & crystallized ginger along with 1 cup of the dry ingredient mixture; pulse until very finely chopped. Add remaining dry ingredients & pulse ONLY to combine.
In a large bowl, using a mixer, beat butter with brown sugar until creamy. Add honey & beat until smooth. Add eggs & vanilla, beating to combine. Fold in dry ingredients then beat until evenly combined. Divide the dough in half. Wrap in plastic wrap & chill for at least 4 hours or overnight.
Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking dish with 2 pieces of parchment paper (this will allow you to easily remove squares fro the pan). Spread the half of the chilled dough evenly into baking pan & bake in the center of the oven until surface is dimpled & a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean, about 20 minutes. The cake should be springy but firm. Let cool on a wire rack for 15 minutes.
In a bowl, whisk powdered sugar with your choice of flavoring & water to make a thin but spreadable glaze. Spread glaze on just-warm cake & let cool completely. Remove cake (with parchment) from pan onto cutting board. Cut 16 squares then cut each square into 2 'triangles' giving you 32 pieces.
Making Individual Cookies
Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper. Scoop about 1 1/2 Tbsp dough out at a time. Roll into balls. Place on parchment about 2-inches apart & bake at 350 F. for 15 minutes or test with a toothpick. Remove from oven & cool completely.
White Chocolate Icing
In a microwave safe bowl, melt white chocolate chips with 1 Tbsp shortening on HIGH for 10 second intervals, stirring between intervals, until melted, smooth & fairly runny. Dip half of each cookie in melted white chocolate mixture then run bottom of cookie slightly along edge of bowl to remove excess. Place on parchment paper to set at room temperature.
For the holly decoration, melt candy melts, one color at a time. Place in a small piping bag with a #4 tip & pipe decorations. Allow to set up at room temperature. You should have around 26 cookies.
If you would like a dark depth of flavor, add 2 Tbsp dark, unsweetened cocoa to your cookie dough as well as using a dark brown sugar instead of the light.
If you prefer to not make 2 different versions, make the whole recipe into either bars or rounds -- your choice!
This is one of those cookies that gets better as it ages.
Something I did & found it worked well was to portion out my cookies before chilling the dough.
Creativity and imagination is part of the fun of baking from scratch. The pairing of flavors been going on ever since people put food to mouth, but the science of it has now become big business.
As a rule of thumb, desserts usually have one or two predominate flavors, but some may have small amounts of additional flavor elements to help support the main flavor combination.
I have always loved the sweet, nutty flavor of hazelnuts especially in baking. The other day I was thinking about a square my mother used to make at Christmas. It had a very simple ‘shortbread’ base that was neither too sweet or buttery. My next thought was to pair hazelnuts, dried cranberries and glazed citrus peel to form the top layer. To add a little pizzazz, I baked them individually in different shaped tartlet pans.
I was real curious to see what Brion would think of these little ‘bites’. After tasting one, he felt they had good flavor but were a little dry. My solution to this was to make an orange coulis sauce to serve with them.
There’s something about the citrus notes of orange with the tarty sweetness of cranberries that makes for an aromatic amorous marriage of flavors. The end result produced a great tasting Christmas dessert!
Hazelnut & Dried Cranberry Bites with Orange Coulis
In a medium bowl, combine flour, sugar, salt & orange zest. Add butter, mix until well combined. Divide shortcrust among 24 tartlet pans. Evenly press pastry on bottom & up the sides of each. Set aside.
In a large bowl, beat eggs with sugar, flour, extract, corn syrup & melted butter. Fold in chopped hazelnuts, cranberries & citrus peel.
Preheat oven to 375 F. Place tartlet pan on a foil lined baking sheet. Carefully fill tartlet pans (should be enough for 24). Bake for about 20-25 minutes or until lightly golden. Remove from oven & cool on a wire rack.
Peel orange in a circular fashion, being careful not to go to thick & getting the pith. Cut in slivers. Juice the orange, straining into a small saucepan. Heat water, orange juice & sugar, bring to a boil. Add slivers of orange peel; simmer about 15 minutes until peel is cooked.
When ready to serve, make a design with some coulis on dessert plates, place tartlets on top. Decorate with a bit candied orange rind!
If you don't care for the orange coulis, try serving these little bites with a bit of Grand Marnier flavored whipped cream OR some white "Old English" cheddar.
The humble meatball is one of the most versatile foods. They seem to exist in just about every culture and can be used in any number of ways, not only with pasta and rice but as a tasty little hors d’ oeuvres.
I find apricots to be a good compliment to meatball hors d’ oeuvres. Using Mediterranean (also known as Turkish) apricots is a good choice as their flesh is thicker and plumper as well as having great flavor.
Many people prefer to fry meatballs but it seems to me that usually ends up with a charred outside and they are still raw inside. Baking them in the oven will result in a much more even cooking. Personal choice I guess.
This recipe for APRICOT-SPICE MEATBALLSis one I’ve used many times over the years. They work well at Christmas events when hot hors d’ oeuvres are in demand. Make the meatballs up, bake and freeze ahead of time — thaw when needed! At serving time, make the spicy apricot nectar sauce and your ready to go.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a 15 x 10 x 1-inch baking pan with foil; lightly grease. Set aside.
In a bowl, combine bread crumbs & milk. Let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in egg white, onion, apricots, salt, garlic & chili powder. Add ground pork & turkey; mix well. Shape meat mixture into 30 meatballs. Place on prepared baking pan. Bake for 15-20 minutes or until meatballs are cooked. Remove meatballs from pan to paper towels.
Spiced Apricot Sauce
In a small saucepan, combine sauce ingredients. Cook & stir over medium heat until thickened & bubbly.
Place meatballs in a slow cooker. Add sauce, stirring gently to coat. Turn heat setting to low. This should keep meatballs warm, while being used by guests for about 2 hours.
If you find your sauce gets to thick or you prefer it thinner to begin with, just use a little more apricot nectar.
This meat combination makes a real flavorful meatball.
One of my all time favorite pasta dishes to make are jumbo stuffed pasta shells. They are easy to prepare and are perfectly portioned for individuals and groups alike.The best part is the multitude of different fillings you can make them with.
Some years ago, Brion and I had the pleasure of eating lunch at Gayles Bakery & Rosticceria in the little seaside town of Capitola, California (see my blog article from July 2016 for Fig & Gorgonzola Chicken Breast). It was there I tasted Spinach-Gorgonzola Pasta. Until then I had never even tasted this kind of cheese. With a strong dislike for Blue Cheese, it looked suspiciously similar. Long story short, it seemed everyone was ordering this pasta so I decided to try it. It was just incredible! The combination of Gorgonzola, ricotta and parmesan make this dish especially decadent and delicious.
Info I found on Gorgonzola Dolce reads like this — Imported from Italy, this sweet or ‘dolce’ Gorgonzola has the characteristically creamy texture and nutty aroma Gorgonzola is known for, yet is milder due to a shorter aging period. A great option for those who normally shy away from blue cheese.
The fact that Brion and I are both seafood lovers, I decided to incorporate this kind of pasta with a little seafood medley. The end result did not disappoint, bringing back that ‘taste of a memory’ once again.
In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, heat milk until hot but not boiling. Meanwhile, combine flour & butter in another heavy saucepan. Stir over medium heat with a wooden spoon or whisk until the mixture has gently bubbled for 2 minutes, being careful not to brown flour.
Begin to add the hot milk to the flour mixture a little at a time while whisking vigorously. Continue to add the milk until it is fully incorporated. Bring the mixture to a boil, reduce heat to low; simmer, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens, about 6-8 minutes. It should resemble heavy cream. Crumble the cheese & add to hot bechamel sauce, whisking continuously until smooth. Add nutmeg & pepper & stir. Remove from heat to cool.
Pasta & Filling
Cook the pasta shells in salted boiling water to which a small amount of oil has been added for 8-10 minutes. Drain & set aside.
In a large skillet, melt butter. Saute spinach & mushrooms until spinach is wilted. Remove to paper towels. Add shrimp & scallops to skillet; saute for 3-4 minutes until opaque & just barley cooked; set aside. Preheat oven to 350 F.
In a large bowl, combine spinach, shrimp, scallops, crab meat, ricotta cheese, garlic & salt & pepper. Fill pasta shells. Spread some sauce in the bottom of a 9 x 13-inch baking pan. Lay filled shells single file in pan. Pour remaining sauce over all & top with a sprinkling of parmesan. Bake 20-30 minutes, until the cheese becomes a little brown.
Bread pudding always gives me reason to remember good things. Why is it so beloved, aside from the extreme comfort food factor? It’s not that the dish was invented here — that honor likely goes to clever medieval or even ancient cooks in Europe and the Middle East who had a surplus of stale bread on their hands. The perfect embodiment of the virtues of frugality and indulgence: day old bread, too precious to waste, is bathed in a mixture of milk and eggs and made into either a sweet or savory bread pudding (with a few other additions) and baked into something sublime.
In 2015, ‘The Taste of a Memory’, a memorabilia/cookbook I wrote as a tribute to my wonderful parents, was published. It contained a compilation of stories, articles, recipes and reflections that evoke an intimate memory, special time period and fond emotion brought about by the aroma and taste of food. Writing them down not only puts them in print but allowed me to take a mental journey back to a gentler time. Hopefully this book will be enjoyed by future generations or just anyone choosing to read it. As with my other book endeavors, Brion’s strong support and technical savvy were invaluable.
For today’s blog, I chose a recipe from the book called APPLE-ANISE BREAD PUDDING. The licorice flavor of anise is one we both enjoy.
Anise seed is native to the Mediterranean basin and has been used throughout history in both sweet and savory applications. Anise seeds are not botanically related to star anise, but have nearly identical flavors and in ground form can be substituted for each other. For most part, Europeans use anise in cakes, cookies and sweet breads where as the Middle East uses it in soups and stews.
I don’t particularly recall my mother using anise in her cooking or baking but for my sister Loretta and I, it’s definitely one of our favorite flavors. I hope you enjoy this bread pudding recipe.
Preheat oven to 350 F. Pulse bread CRUSTS ONLY in a food processor to make bread crumbs. Reserve 1 cup for the topping. Butter an 8 x 8-inch baking dish & coat with 1-2 Tbsp of the remaining bread crumbs.
With a mixer, beat eggs & then add the sugar. Mix in anise seeds, cinnamon, vanilla & milk until combined. Pour into a large bowl & add bread bread cubes. Fold together gently with a spatula then pour into prepared baking dish. Top with diced apples & chopped walnuts.
In a small dish, combine reserved 1 cup bread crumbs with 2 Tbs melted butter & 1 Tbsp sugar. Sprinkle topping evenly over pudding.
Prepare a 'hot water bath'. For this you will need another pan that's larger than & at least as deep as the bread pudding pan itself. When you set the bread pudding pan in it and add water it should go about halfway up the sides. This will ensure even, slow baking for a smooth velvety result.
Bake about an hour or until it tests done. Pudding should be puffy & golden. Serve as is or with whipped cream, your choice!
ANISE SUGAR - for tea, on top of cookies or over fruit.
In a blender, combine 1 cup sugar with 1 T. anise seed
Blend on high speed until mixture is thoroughly combined
Today, November 23rd, our American neighbors are celebrating their Thanksgiving Day. A public holiday, originating as the ‘harvest festival’, is now celebrated along with Christmas and New Year as part of the broader ‘holiday season’.
Here in Canada, our Thanksgiving was celebrated on October 9th. Generally at the heart of this feast is a roast turkey with all the trimmings. I thought I would get a little more creative today and break with tradition as well as giving an acknowledgement to the US holiday.
BACON WRAPPED, GUACAMOLE STUFFED CHICKEN BREAST seems like an interesting idea. Guacamole, an unlikely stuffing for chicken breast as it usually served as a cold tortilla chip dip. It’s one of those taste ‘sensations’ you have to taste to believe. Of course, you have to start with liking avocados —
As history tells us, the Aztec empire created guacamole spread with some of the same ingredients that we use today as far back as the 1500’s. Published recipes first started appearing in the 1940’s.
Along with the guacamole, I used some smoked Gouda cheese in these little delicacies. I was careful not to add any salt in the guacamole. Between the bacon and the Gouda, I felt it had enough for our liking. The meal makes a nice presentation as well as having a great taste.
Mash avocado with a fork, leaving some chunks. Mince onion & coarsely chop sun-dried tomato pieces. Combine all guacamole ingredients to blend.
Preheat oven to 400 F. Cut a slit into the center of each chicken breast to make a pocket. Lay breasts between two sheets of plastic wrap & pound flat to about a 1/4-inch thickness. On cut side of breasts, lay sliced Gouda cheese. Divide guacamole between breasts; roll up chicken breasts & wrap each one in two strips of bacon. Make sure bacon ends are all on one side. Use toothpicks to ensure all stays in one piece.
Bake for 20-30 minutes, until chicken is cooked & bacon gets nice & crispy.
Being one who appreciates both roasted vegetables and the origins of things, I was curious as to when roasting vegetables became a ‘thing’.
The presence of a platter of blistered carrots and parsnips on our dinner table is happily commonplace these days. However, this was not always the case.
Restaurant chefs have forever roasted vegetables for certain preparations, especially classics like roasted plum tomato sauce and charred red peppers for antipasto.
Dry-heat cooking in an oven has traditionally been associated with meat, poultry and game. Roasting other foods like fish, vegetables and fruit seals in and intensifies flavors, imparts an attractive burnish and often uses less ‘fat’ than other cooking methods. The use of ‘professional’ quality sheet pans, roasting pans and ovenproof skillets is best for such roasting.
This roasting technique came into vogue in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. Clearly, roasting is the only way to treat vegetables. The taste is legitimately superior to older techniques in almost all cases as it concentrates and enhances via caramelization. So, it begs the question, why did it take so long to become the default vegetable cooking technique? A lingering preference for boiled, steamed and sauteed veggies seems to be the main reason. Although technology has not changed that much in several decades, sensibilities regarding how certain foods should be prepared have shifted greatly. The days of limp, tasteless, boiled vegetables are gone!
This simple recipe is one Brion and I enjoy often.
Pork tenderloin can be stuffed with anything, imagination is the limit. What’s not to like — easy to prepare, boneless and fork tender. The pairing of pork with cornbread seems perfect, add caramelized onions and you got it!
Cornbread is one of those nostalgic foods for me. It always brings me back to my mother’s kitchen. I remember very clearly that wonderful smell of fresh cornbread coming out of the oven and that small Pyrex, rectangle baking pan she always baked it in. Those special memories came to mind today as I was trying to come up with a supper ‘idea’.
I love stuffing or dressing, whatever you prefer to call it. Of course, my ultimate favorite is the one I grew up with. On the other hand when you just need a very small amount, I see nothing wrong with using a box of ‘Stovetop Stuffing’. Of course I can’t resist telling you just a bit of the history about the product itself —
In 1972, General Foods which is now known as Kraft Foods introduced ‘Stovetop Stuffing’. It was quick, convenient, tasty and therefore was an instant hit.
The secret lies in the crumb size. If the dried crumb is too small, adding water to it makes a soggy mass; too large, and the result is gravel. The nature of the cell structure and overall texture of the dried bread crumb used in this invention is of great importance if a stuffing which will hydrate in a matter of minutes to the proper texture and mouthfeel is to be prepared.
Ruth Siems, a home economist that spent more than three decades on the staff of General Foods was instrumental in arriving at the precise crumb dimensions — about the size of a pencil eraser.
That being said, here is my idea for this great little combination. We really enjoyed it!
Stuffed Pork Rolls with Cornbread & Caramelized Onions
In a large skillet, heat oil. Add onion & sprinkle with salt. Cook & stir about 15 minutes or until moisture is evaporated & onion is soft. Reduce heat; sprinkle with cider vinegar. Cook & stir until golden. Sprinkle with brown sugar; cook & stir until caramel brown color.
Prepare as directed on package.
Slice tenderloin into 4 pieces. Using a meat mallet, pound into thin slices. Divide caramelized onions between them and spread over meat. Top with a layer of prepared cornmeal stuffing. Roll tightly encasing the filling inside & tie with kitchen twine. Roll pork rolls in the 1/4 cup flour that has been seasoned with salt & pepper to coat lightly.
In a large skillet, heat butter & oil; brown pork rolls well on each side. Remove rolls to a platter,
Red Wine Gravy
Stir 'brown bits' remaining from frying rolls, with garlic, thyme & red wine. Simmer about 5 minutes. In a small dish, combine cornstarch with chicken broth; add to wine mixture, season to taste. Return pork rolls to the pan. Cover, simmer gently for another 8-10 minutes.
Place pork rolls on serving platter & stir fresh parsley into gravy. Spoon gravy over pork rolls & serve immediately.
In a small saucepan, bring sugar, salt & water to a boil. Add cranberries, reduce heat & simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Cool slightly then process for a few seconds in a food processor. Add orange zest; stir & set aside to cool completely.
Pumpkin Spice Roll
Preheat oven to 375 F. Line a 15 x 10-inch jelly roll pan with parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, spices & salt. In a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat eggs, vanilla & sugar until mixture is pale yellow & fluffy. Add pumpkin puree & mix to combine. Fold in the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, spread the cake batter evenly into prepared pan. Bake for about 10-13 minutes or until top of cake springs back when touched & tests done in the middle.
While cake is baking, make CREAM CHEESE FILLING. In a medium bowl, beat cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter & vanilla until smooth. Refrigerate until ready to use.
Remove cake immediately from the oven; invert onto a clean tea towel that has been lightly sprinkled with powdered sugar. Remove parchment paper & carefully roll cake in jelly roll fashion in tea towel.
When cake has cooled completely, carefully unroll & spread with a layer of cranberry jam. Next top with a layer of cream cheese filling. Carefully re-roll cake. Wrap in plastic wrap & refrigerate at least one hour or overnight.
Decorate with remaining cream cheese topping & cranberries (I saved a few whole ones from the cranberry jam). Add a few 'kiwi' leaves & you got it!
Dinner in a bag! When I first saw the ‘Look’ oven cooking bags years ago, I just had to try them. It seemed like a no brainer. What could be better than cooking your entire meal in this bag, getting perfect results and then the ultimate bonus —no clean-up! Of course, along the way the aluminum foil pack cooking has been used as well. As research suggests, small amounts of aluminum may leach into our food with higher heat so that brings me to cooking in parchment paper. It certainly seems like the best alternative. Not only is the technique easy to do but is healthy as well. You barely need any oil or fat to cook because the food effectively steams inside the parchment. Your result is very tender meat and veggies, flavored with whatever herbs, spices or sauces you have included.
Instead of roasting chicken parts today I am doing the whole chicken in parchment paper with some brown mushrooms, onions & herbs. Should be great!
Preheat oven to 375 F. Season chicken inside & out. Season cleaned mushrooms & moisten with oil. Place as many mushrooms as possible, together with some of the thyme, inside the chicken cavity. Season the shallots & moisten with oil.
Place chicken in the center of a large sheet of parchment paper. Place the remaining mushrooms, shallots, garlic & some thyme underneath the chicken. Moisten the skin of the chicken with olive oil. Wrap up in the paper & roast for 1 1/4-1 1/2 hours, or until browned & very tender.
Serve with the roast mushrooms & shallots, topped with the roast juices.